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Defendant's Meeting with Pastor Was Not for Spiritual Advice

Man accused of sexual abuse of stepdaughter not protected by clergy-penitent privilege.

Key point 3-07.4. In order for the clergy-penitent privilege to apply, there must be a communication that is made to a minister acting in a professional capacity as a spiritual adviser.

A Louisiana court ruled that the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply to statements made by a criminal defendant to a pastor. The court based its ruling on the fact that the defendant had met with the pastor to refute criminal charges made against him rather than to seek spiritual counsel required for the privilege to apply.

The defendant is given a 15-year sentence by a trial court

During a three-day trial, a jury heard the victim testify that her stepfather (the “defendant”) began a sexual relationship with her when she was 14 years old that lasted for more than three years.

An associate pastor testified that in April 2017 the victim told him the defendant had been having sex with her since she was 14 years old, continuing until about two weeks before the meeting with the associate pastor. The associate pastor agreed to meet with the victim and her mother the following day so that she could tell her mother, who was unaware of the situation.

The associate pastor stated that he and the church’s senior pastor met with the victim and her mother, and that the defendant was outside the room during the meeting. Thereafter, the associate pastor testified that the defendant wanted to tell his side of the story and did so in the pastor’s office out of the presence of his wife and her daughter. According to the pastor, the defendant admitted to having a sexual relationship with the victim but only after she turned 18.

The defendant later met with a detective who took a recorded video statement of the defendant after he was advised of and waived his Miranda rights. In the video statement, the defendant admitted to engaging in sexual intercourse with the defendant when she was 17 and 18, but he denied earlier contact. The defendant was charged with sexual abuse of a minor.

At the defendant’s trial, the pastor was allowed to testify regarding the defendant’s confession despite the defendant’s claim that the confession was protected from disclosure by the clergy-penitent privilege. The jury found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 15 years at hard labor. The defendant appealed on the ground that his conversation with the pastor should not have been allowed in evidence at his trial.

Appeals court: “spiritual guidance” was not the sole purpose of meeting

On appeal, the defendant asserted that the trial court erred in rejecting his claim that his conversation with the pastor was protected by the clergy-penitent privilege and should not have been admitted into evidence at his trial. He noted that the statements he communicated to his pastor were made in a private setting and were made for the sole purpose of spiritual counseling.

The appeals court ruled that the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply in this case and therefore it was appropriate for the pastor to testify regarding his conversation with the defendant. The court began its opinion by quoting the clergy-penitent privilege in Louisiana:

“A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another person from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in his professional character as spiritual adviser.

“A communication is ‘confidential’ if it is made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.

“The privilege may be claimed by the person or by his legal representative. The clergyman is presumed to have authority to claim the privilege on behalf of the person or deceased person.”

The court noted:

“Thus, there are three legal prerequisites to finding that the clergy privilege applies. First, it must be determined that the person to whom the communication was received is a ‘clergyman.’ Second, it must be determined that the purpose of the communication was to seek spiritual advice or consolation. . . . Third, it must be determined that the communication was made privately and was not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication. However, even if those explicit requirements of the article are met, it must also be determined whether or not the communicant waived the application of the privilege” by voluntarily disclosing or consenting “to disclosure of any significant part of the privileged matter” [quoting State v. Gray, 891 So.2d 1260 (La. 2005)].

The court concluded that the second requirement for the clergy-penitent privilege to apply was not met since “the primary purpose of defendant's [conversation with] the pastor was for a reason other than spiritual guidance. The record supports the finding that defendant's sole purpose was to refute the victim's accusation that the sexual intercourse started when she was fourteen years old.”

What this means for churches

This case illustrates that not all conversations with clergy are protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Such conversations are protected only when clergy are sought out in their professional capacity as spiritual advisers. In rejecting the application of the privilege, the court stressed that the purpose of the meeting was to rebut the victim’s claims and to share his side of the story. State v. Faciane, 2020 La. App. Lexis 485 (La. App. 2020).

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