A person's conversations with clergy cannot be revealed, even if that person isn't making a formal confession, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
The court's ruling clarified two points: members of all religions have a right to expect visits with their clergy to be confidential even if those religions don't include formal confessions, as the Catholic Church does, and someone seeking advice from clergy has the same right to confidentiality as someone admitting a wrongdoing.In a 5-0 decision released Monday, the court ruled that even non-penitent conversations with church leaders are confidential if the person intends them to be, if he is seeking spiritual guidance or if the conversation is part of church discipline.
"This ruling is an important restatement of the law so people in Utah can feel confident that they can talk to their priests, rabbis and bishops and know that what they say in confidence will be kept in confidence," said Oscar McConkie Jr., attorney for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ross C. Anderson, attorney for a woman seeking to know what her father told his bishop, was unhappy with the decision.
"The LDS Church seems to have received extremely favorable treatment at the expense of ascertaining the truth," he said.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit Michelle Scott filed against her adoptive father, Steven LeRoy Hammock, accusing him of sexually abusing her from the time she was 5 years old until she was 15.
Years before Scott sued him, Hammock pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted forcible sexual abuse and also was excommunicated from the LDS Church. Prior to being excommunicated, Hammock had several conversations with his bishop.
When Hammock was interviewed under oath as part of his daughter's suit, Hammock refused to repeat what he had said to his bishop, saying the conversation was protected by Utah's clergy-penitent privilege law. But Hammock did say the conversation was not a confession and he was not penitent, the ruling says.
Before Scott's case went to trial, she asked the Utah Supreme Court to rule that the conversation could not be kept confidential because Hammock's remarks were not a confession.
Scott believes Hammock told the bishop he was abusing her. She wants to use that conversation as evidence at trial.
Anderson, the attorney for Scott, says the language of the law only protects a confession.
Instead of defining what a confession means under the law, the court "ignored the language of the statute and, instead, ruled on what they thought the law ought to be," he said.
Under this new ruling, Utah's clergy-penitent law "protects anything that the church thinks is confidential," he said. It was up to the Legislature, not the court, to write a law that broad, he said. "No one wants them up there legislating, and that's exactly what they did in this case," he said.
If the court had interpreted the law the way Anderson wanted it to, only the Catholics could legally have relied on their clergy to keep a confidence, McConkie said. Under Anderson's interpretation of the law, only churches that held formal confessions could invoke the clergy-penitent privilege to keep a discussion confidential.
"The court has to interpret the law as applying to the Mormon Church, the Protestant churches and the Jewish churches as well as the Catholic Church, or the law wouldn't be constitutional," McConkie said. "That isn't giving deference to one church. That's giving even-handed treatment to all churches."
The Supreme Court noted in its ruling that a broad interpretation of the word "confession" was necessary to avoid discriminating against churches like the LDS Church that do not require formal confessions but do require their clergy to provide confidential spiritual guidance.
In its ruling, the court likened the relationship between a church member and his clergy with that of a psychotherapist and his patient. "The clergy-penitent relationship depends on a sense of complete confidentiality as much as the psychotherapist-patient privilege does."
The patients and church members are only willing to "open up their innermost personalities and disclose their most private and sometimes painful aspects of themselves" in a completely confidential setting, the court ruled, quoting from a previous court ruling.
"Thus, to fulfill their responsibilities, clergy must be able to counsel and admonish with confidentiality," the court concluded.
However, not all conversations with clergy are confidential. Casual conversations or conversations held in the hearing of those not directly involved with the problem are not confidential, the court ruled.