Written Communications and the Clergy-Penitent Privilege

In some cases, a letter written to a minister may be protected.

Church Law and Tax 1994-01-01 Recent Developments

Confidential and Privileged Communications

Key point: In some cases, a letter written to a minister may be covered by the “clergy-penitent privilege” and accordingly immune from involuntary disclosure in a court of law.

A Texas appeals court suggested that letters written to clergy may be protected by the clergy-penitent privilege if they otherwise qualify. A woman was prosecuted for the murder of her husband. A jury rejected her alibi defense that she was with her pastor at the time of the murder. The prosecution, in rebutting the woman’s alibi defense, introduced into evidence two letters written by the woman to her pastor in which she urged him to testify that she was with him at the time of the murder. The letters warned the pastor that if he did not agree to testify that she had been with him at the time of the murder, she would “be forced” to disclose “the full truth” about their “personal relationship.” The pastor, who denied any inappropriate relationship with the woman, took the letters to the police. He later testified in court that the woman had not been with him at the time of the murder. The woman was convicted of murder, and sentenced to 75 years in prison. She appealed her conviction, in part on the ground that the letters she wrote to the pastor were protected by the clergy-penitent privilege and should not have been introduced into evidence at her trial. A state appeals court rejected this claim, and affirmed the conviction. The court observed:

The privilege in Texas … need not be penitential in order to qualify for protection. Nevertheless, not every private conversation with or letter to a member of the clergy is privileged. The privilege extends only to communications that are addressed to a clergyman in his professional capacity. The [trial court] found that the [woman’s] letters were not written to the pastor in his professional character as a spiritual adviser. There is nothing in either letter than can remotely be characterized as a request for spiritual guidance or consolation. The letters were nothing more than open threats to destroy the pastor’s reputation if he did not provide [her] with an alibi, and could as easily have been addressed to any other man with whom [she] had or could claim to have had a “personal relationship.”

In summary, the court concluded that letters to a minister may be privileged if they are written to the minister in his or her professional capacity as a spiritual adviser. Of course, not every letter to a minister will fall into this category, and this certainly was true in this case. This case will be useful precedent to clergy seeking to resist disclosure of confidential letters received in their capacity as spiritual advisers. Easley v. State, 837 S.W.2d 854 (Tex. App. 1992).

See Also: Were the Statements Intended to be Communications? | Was the Minister Acting in a Professional Capacity?

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