Privileged Communications

When does the clergy-penitent privilege apply?

Church Law and Tax 1991-01-01 Recent Developments

Confidential and Privileged Communications

A New York state court ruled that a priest’s testimony in a criminal hearing was not “privileged.” A criminal suspect was convicted on two counts of burglary, and he appealed his conviction. One basis for his appeal was that the trial court improperly considered the testimony of a priest with whom the defendant had spoken briefly. An appeals court rejected the defendant’s argument. It acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion as to why the defendant had spoken with the priest. The defendant claimed that he spoke with the priest solely to ask him to contact an attorney on his behalf. On the other hand, the priest testified that the defendant sought him out in order to apologize personally to him for burglarizing his home. The appeals court concluded that only those communications made to a minister while acting in his or her professional role as a spiritual advisor are privileged from disclosure in a court of law. Under either the defendant’s or the priest’s account of the communication, it was not privileged since the priest had not been sought out for spiritual counsel or advice. Accordingly, it was appropriate to admit the priest’s testimony over the defendant’s objection. People v. Schultz, 557 N.Y.S.2d 543 (N.Y. 1990).

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