New Mexico Court: Child Abuse Reporting Laws Did Not Apply to Pastor’s Testimony

The defendant in this case was protected by both the clergy-penitent privilege and state statute.

Key point 3-08.08 . Clergy who are mandatory reporters of child abuse are excused from a duty to report in many states if they learn of the abuse in the course of a conversation covered by the clergy-penitent privilege. Some state child abuse reporting laws do not contain this exception.

Key point 4-08. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.

A New Mexico court ruled that the designation of clergy as mandatory reporters under state child abuse reporting laws does not serve as a basis for admitting into evidence communications clearly protected by the clergy-penitent privilege.

The trial court said the pastor’s testimony was admissible

An adult male (the “defendant”) was charged with the sexual abuse of a child under 13 years of age. He was found guilty and appealed his conviction on the ground that his pastor was allowed to testify at trial about a confession he had made to him.

The defendant claimed that his pastor’s testimony was barred by the clergy-penitent privilege—a privilege that generally prohibits ministers from testifying in court regarding statements shared with them in confidence in the course of spiritual counseling.

The trial court ruled that even if the defendant’s statements to the pastor were privileged, they were admissible in court because of the state’s child abuse reporting law, which requires “a member of the clergy . . . who knows or has a reasonable suspicion that a child is an abused or a neglected child” to “report the matter immediately only if the information is not privileged as a matter of law.”

Appeals court: The trial court erred

A state appeals court concluded that the defendant’s statements to his pastor fell within the scope of the clergy communication privilege and thus were not admissible at trial.

The appeals court stated:

It was obvious error for the [trial court] to rule that New Mexico’s child abuse reporting statute . . . allowed the [trial court] to admit Defendant’s statements into evidence. . . . Insofar as the pastor’s knowledge or suspicion that [the] Victim had been abused was based on information that was privileged, the plain language of the statute exempted the matter from disclosure.

What this means for churches

Clergy are mandatory reporters of child abuse in most states. Several state child abuse reporting laws provide that clergy, even if mandatory reporters, are not required to report evidence of child abuse obtained in the course of conversations protected by the clergy-penitent privilege.

And, according to this court, the designation of clergy as mandatory reporters does not serve as a basis for admitting into evidence communications between clergy and their counselees clearly protected by the clergy-penitent privilege.

State v. Pritchett, 2021 WL 3674571 (N.M. App. 2021).

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