As you might expect from the headline, this case is disturbing, disgusting, and revolting.
What you might not expect is that the good guy in this story is the religious leader.
In 2009, an 11-year-old girl told her mother that, two years earlier, her 15-year-old male cousin had raped her (when she was nine). The facts in the case are horrific:
The victim awoke in the middle of the night when defendant pulled down her pants and underwear. He then penetrated her rectum with his penis. When the victim tried to yell, defendant allegedly pushed her face into a pillow and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. The second night of her visit, [the victim shared a bed with defendant’s sister] H. The victim alleged that defendant came into the room in the middle of the night while H was sleeping. Defendant allegedly put his hand inside the victim’s pants and fondled her buttocks and vaginal area.
Upon hearing this, the girl’s mother informed the police, her husband, and the pastor of the church which — as it turned out — both families attended. The pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan, knew the defendant well and asked him and his mother to come to the church to speak with him. He didn’t tell them what it was about.
During that meeting, he elicited a confession from the defendant. Later, he told the victim’s family what the defendant had said. The family, in turn, told the police what had transpired.
While this sounds like an open-and-shut case — we have a confession, after all — it’s not quite that clear-cut.
In court, the defendant said that the pastor’s testimony could not be used against him because he had made it in private to an acting member of the clergy. There’s precedent for that — many states agree that when a person tells their pastor (or priest or whatever) something that is necessary to allow the pastor to fulfill his function, that statement is considered confidential.
It didn’t matter here. The trial court allowed the pastor’s testimony to stand. To no one’s surprise, the ruling went against the defendant.
So there was an appeal. This time, the new court said that it was wrong for the pastor to testify because the defendant’s statements had been made within the clerical-congregant relationship and were therefore privileged, meaning that the court cannot compel the pastor to testify, and the defendant can prevent the pastor from testifying.
Normally, if another “unnecessary” person is present during what would otherwise be a confidential communication, the privilege is destroyed. For instance, if I bring my sister with me to see my lawyer and I tell the lawyer I committed a crime, the lawyer could potentially divulge that to the police. I said it in front of someone else, after all.
But naturally, if the person making the statement is a minor, the rules are different. It’s pretty important for parents to be allowed to accompany their children during important conversations (like police interrogations, attorney consultations, etc). So, in this case, having the defendant’s mother present didn’t break the “confidentiality” rule.
The Appeals court essentially ruled in favor of the defendant. Even though a confession happened, it was considered confidential. It couldn’t be used against him. They excluded critical evidence in the case of an abhorrent crime.
This leads to some important questions: Is this really the morally correct thing to perpetuate in our society? Should there be a special privilege that’s based purely on religious views and hinders the prosecution of horrendous crimes?
The answers to these questions are complicated. The privilege is rooted in the Free Exercise Clause. That is, courts have found that it would violate the First Amendment to require clergy to violate their conscience by betraying the confidence their parishioners place in them. On the one hand, I have no desire to see First Amendment protections reduced in any way. On the other hand, we infringe on people’s rights all the time in order to serve some greater societal good.
The way most other privileges work (physician-patient, attorney-client, psychotherapist-patient) is that the professional in question may not reveal statements about past crimes. If someone tells their lawyer about a crime they’re planning which involves serious harm to another person, in some states, the lawyer must tell the authorities. But, if the crime occurred in the past, then the statements are still privileged.
We often require “violations of conscience” where they would serve a public good, like when we punish parents for withholding medical care from their children. Because of this, the Free Exercise issue pales in comparison to the cost in this case: A child rapist walking free.
The only remaining consideration, then, is whether there are any other reasons to respect the confidentiality of the relationship between a pastor and his flock. We protect communications between the other professionals and their respective clients/patients because we believe that frankness is crucial to those relationships.
Without believing you could privately tell your doctor the truth, you might not get the proper treatment. Without being able to tell your lawyer the full truth, no lawyer could adequately represent you. Does the same principle apply to clergy? Well, if you’re religious, I’m sure it does. I presume that the members of that church believe that their ability to receive spiritual counseling depends heavily upon the degree to which they can be sure it’s confidential. The question is, to what degree should a secular society be concerned with the spiritual health of church-goers, when it potentially has terrible consequences for crime victims?
Personally, I’d rather put this on the list of Free Exercise rights that are not absolute than allow such critical evidence to be excluded. The benefit of respecting the sanctity of that relationship just doesn’t rise to the level of overshadowing the benefit of putting a child-rapist in jail.
Would your cost-benefit analysis be different?