What Constitutes “Spiritual Counsel”?

The clergy-penitent privilege applies only in situations of spiritual counsel.

Church Law and Tax 1992-11-01 Recent Developments

Taxation – Church Property

A Louisiana appeals court ruled that two ministers could testify in court concerning confessions allegedly made to them by a murder suspect. The murder suspect was convicted of the second degree murder of his wife largely on the basis of the testimony of the two ministers. The conviction was appealed on the ground that the statements to the ministers were protected by the clergy-penitent privilege and accordingly should not have been used in court. The appeals court rejected this claim and affirmed the conviction. It began by quoting the Louisiana clergy-privilege statute: “No clergyman is permitted, without the consent of the person making the communication, to disclose any communication made to him in confidence by one seeking his spiritual advice or consolation, or any information that he may have gotten by reason of such communication.” The suspect was a good friend of one of the ministers. This minister testified that the suspect came to him “as a friend” and confessed to murdering his wife. He did not ask for forgiveness and there was no discussion of a spiritual nature. The minister later related the confession to his wife, because he simply could not believe it. He testified in court that as a minister he would not have discussed the information he got from the suspect with anyone else had the suspect come to him as a penitent to confess and seek forgiveness. The other minister also was a friend of the suspect. He testified that he called the suspect and asked him if he had shot his wife. The suspect admitted that he had. There was no discussion of a need for spiritual guidance or forgiveness. At his trial, the suspect contradicted both ministers’ testimony. While he admitted that he had spoken with both ministers, he denied having confessed to murdering his wife. He did not testify that he went to either minister for the purpose of confessing his crime or for seeking spiritual guidance. The appeals court concluded that the suspect’s testimony “was not that he sought privileged spiritual advice and guidance from the reverends in their capacity as ministers of the church, but that he made no confessions to anyone.” Accordingly, it was inappropriate for the suspect to assert on appeal that the testimony of the ministers should have been excluded on the basis of the clergy-penitent privilege. The court went on to conclude that even if the suspect could raise the clergy-penitent privilege issue on appeal, his conversations with the two ministers were not privileged. It observed: “In the instant case, the clergyman-penitent privilege is inapplicable. The totality of the circumstances presented does not indicate that statements made by the [suspect] are within the communications protected. Neither the clergymen nor the suspect considered the statements to be in the nature of a confidential disclosure by a man to his spiritual adviser for purposes of gaining religious guidance. In fact, the suspect himself denies that any statements were made for any reason. Thus, the trial judge properly allowed the testimony of these two witnesses.” State v. Mayer, 589 So.2d 1145 (La. App. 1991).

See Also: The Clergy-Penitent Privilege

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