DETROIT — Michigan Court of Appeals judges heard arguments this week on a case that could have serious repercussions for church members: Can what you confess to your pastor be used against you in a court of law?
A three-judge panel of the court is being asked to decide whether a Baptist pastor violated Michigan's priest-penitent privilege by testifying against a church member in a rape case.
"This is a very dangerous case because it could have very serious repercussions for religion," the rape suspect's lawyer, Raymond Cassar of Farmington Hills, said Tuesday. "If a pastor is allowed to testify against a member of his church about privileged communications, no one will want to confess their sins to their pastors anymore."
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Teri Odette argued in court documents that the privilege doesn't apply in this case.
"The communication was initiated by the pastor — not by the defendant — and was done to ascertain whether the victim was telling the truth, not for the purpose of spiritual guidance," she said.
In 2009, Samuel D. Bragg and his mother arrived at Metro Baptist Church in Belleville to be questioned by their pastor, the Rev. John Vaprezsan, about the rape of a 9-year-old girl.
Vaprezsan got Bragg, then 17, to confess that he had raped a 9-year-old girl during a sleepover at his home in 2007 when he was 15.
Two years later, after attending a church retreat on purity, the girl confided to her mother, who told Vaprezsan.
Vaprezsan testified against Bragg — over the objections of Bragg's attorney — at a preliminary examination last March.
Vaprezsan said on Tuesday that he couldn't comment on the case.
Asked whether he had ever encountered such a situation, he said: "As pastors, we're involved in a lot of situations with families. I really don't consider the repercussions, I just try to help people."
Although a district judge ordered Bragg to stand trial in Wayne County Circuit Court, Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway tossed Vaprezsan's testimony, saying it violated Michigan's priest-penitent privilege.
State law says no priest or pastor shall be required to disclose any confessions made to him or her in their professional capacity.
But Odette argued Bragg's confession wasn't confidential because his mother was there, and it had nothing to do with church discipline or spiritual guidance.
She also said Vaprezsan didn't claim a privilege and testified that he had a duty to tell the victim, her family and the police what he had learned. He said it didn't violate Baptist doctrine.
Cassar, who represents Bragg, disagreed.
He said Vaprezsan had been Bragg's pastor since he was 5 and that Bragg, along with his mother, assumed that they were being summoned to the church office for counseling.
Cassar said the meeting was conducted in a spiritual manner and the pastor, Bragg and his mother concluded by praying together.
Bragg is free on bond, pending trial on a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child younger than 13. The charge carries a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.
Cassar's associate, Amanda Paletz, said a lot will be riding on the appeals court decision: "This has the potential for turning men and women of the cloth into agents of the police."
The issue of religious confessions is a sensitive one for local clergy.
On the one hand, they want to honor confidentiality with the faithful; on the other hand, they feel they have a responsibility for the welfare of others, especially victims of crime.
Rabbi Jason Miller, of Kosher Michigan , said he tries to honor the confidentiality of people who confess to him.
But "if information that is confided in me would lead to serious harm of another human being, I would feel compelled to tell the authorities," he said. "That would include situations of abuse."
Msgr. Ricardo Bass, pastor at St. Hubert Catholic Church and a former chief judge for canon law for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the priest-penitent privilege is inviolate in the Catholic Church.
He said two church canons forbid priests from using knowledge acquired from a confession to the detriment of a penitent.
"This is an absolute, no question about it," he said.
Cassar said little case law exists on the priest-penitent privilege in Michigan, and no matter how things turn out at the Court of Appeals, the case likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.