Hospital Chaplain Allowed to Testify in Child Abuse Case

Testimony is not subject to penitent privilege, court says.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Confidential and Privileged Communications

Key point. Not all statements to clergy are protected by the clergy—penitent privilege. To be privileged, a statement must be made to a minister, in confidence, while acting in his or spiritual capacity as a spiritual adviser.

An Idaho court ruled that a hospital chaplain could testify in court regarding incriminating statements made to him by the father of an 11—month—old child whom he had brutally beaten. The child had been left with his father, and was immediately taken to a hospital emergency room by his mother after she returned home. An emergency room physician diagnosed the child as suffering from a skull fracture, retinal hemorrhage, cerebral edema and subdural hematoma, which were caused by a severe blow to the head. A neurologist later concluded that the child was severely brain damaged and would not be able to obtain the developmental level of a one year—old child. He also stated that there was a good likelihood that the child would be blind in one or both eyes. A jury convicted the father of felony injury to a child, and sentenced him to 8 years in prison. During the trial the prosecutor called as a witness the full—time chaplain at the hospital, who had spoken with the father shortly after the child was admitted to the emergency room. The chaplain described his duties at the hospital as helping families in difficult situations with “spiritual problems” and acting as a “liaison between medical staff and the families or in some cases the patients.” He testified that he met the father when he and his wife arrived with their child at the hospital. The father and mother went with the chaplain into a room adjacent to the emergency room to discuss what had taken place. The father stated that he had left the child momentarily and returned to find him vomiting and limp. He then admitted that he “picked up the child and shook him” and that “maybe I shook him too hard.” The father claimed that the statements he made to the chaplain were privileged communications which the court should have excluded. A trial court disagreed, and so did a state appeals court.

The appeals court began its opinion by quoting the Idaho “clergy—penitent privilege”: “A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor”. A communication made to a clergyman is confidential “if made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.” The court concluded that the father’s statements to the chaplain were not privileged since (1) the chaplain “acted as a conduit between the hospital and patients or their families” and therefore “his role was not simply one of a spiritual advisor,” and (2) the father’s statements were not made privately with an intent that there be no further disclosure. The court pointed out that the circumstances surrounding the discussion between the father and the hospital chaplain

EXT compel the conclusion that the communication was not made in private. For example, [the chaplain] testified at trial that the door to the room where the parties spoke was open and that hospital staff “were going back and forth” just outside the room. Additionally … [the chaplain] testified that he could hear what was being said outside of the room; that no effort was made to prevent others from hearing his conversation with [the father]; and that [the chaplain] was not asked to close the door or to keep the matters confidential. [The chaplain] also testified that he often told families that he shared information with the medical staff; however, he did not remember whether he so informed the [father].

Further, the child’s mother testified that the chaplain never represented that the conversations would be kept confidential. She also testified that she did not know whether their communication was supposed to be confidential. In addition, the father mentioned to other hospital staff members that he had shaken the child, and this behavior suggested that he “did not intend the communications to [the chaplain] to remain confidential.” The court concluded that based on these facts “the communication was not received by [the chaplain] in his professional character as spiritual adviser, nor was it made privately as required by [the clergy—penitent privilege]. The statements therefore did not constitute privileged communication … and were properly admitted.” State v. Gardiner, 898 P.2d 615 (Ida. App. 1995). [ The Clergy—Penitent Privilege, The Clergy—Penitent Privilege]

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