Talk Given by Attorney Linda Chambers:
Rights and Protections Offered to Churches
November 3, 2013
November 3, 2013
1 Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40, 51 (1980).
Pa. Statute: 42 Pa.C.S. § 5943. Confidential communications to clergymen
No clergyman, priest, rabbi or minister of the gospel of any regularly established church or religious organization, except clergymen or ministers, who are self-ordained or who are members of religious organizations in which members other than the leader thereof are deemed clergymen or ministers, who while in the course of his duties has acquired information from any person secretly and in confidence shall be compelled, or allowed without consent of such person, to disclose that information in any legal proceeding, trial or investigation before any government unit.
2 Com. v. Stewart, 547 Pa. 277, 288, 690 A.2d 195 (1997.).
23 Pa.C.S. § 6311. Persons required to report suspected child abuse
(a) General rule.--A person who, in the course of employment, occupation or practice of a profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313 (relating to reporting procedure) when the person has reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is a victim of child abuse…
Except with respect to confidential communications made to a member of the clergy which are protected under 42 Pa.C.S. 5943... and except with respect to confidential communications made to an attorney, ....the privileged communication between any professional person required to report and the patient or client of that person shall not apply to situations involving child abuse and shall not constitute grounds for failure to report as required by this chapter.
1. A woman meets privately with her priest because she is hysterical after discovering her husband has been unfaithful. She is so upset over the discovery that she lets her priest know she has considered suicide. She also tells him that she was so angry with her husband and his paramour that she bought a gun so she can kill them both. She asks for help in coping with the betrayal as she is afraid she will harm herself and others. Does the priest have any legal duty to warn her family, her husband or his paramour? Does the priest have a legal duty to call the police?
NO. NOT ONLY IS THERE NO LEGAL DUTY, DISCLOSURE WOULD BE A VIOLATION OF THE PARISHIONER’S EXPECTATION THAT HER DISCUSSION WOULD BE CONFIDENTIAL. SHE IS ASKING FOR SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE AND HELP. BY DISCLOSING HER COMMUNICATIONS, THE PRIEST WOULD NOT ONLY DISCOURAGE HER FROM SEEKING HIS HELP IN THE FUTURE, HE WOULD CAUSE OTHER PARISHIONERS TO QUESTION WHETHER THEY CAN TRUST THE CLERGY WITH THEIR DEEPEST SECRETS.
2. A member of the congregation has a private meeting with his priest. During the meeting, he confesses that his daughter’s broken arm was not really from falling down the stairs but was an injury he caused in anger because she wouldn’t stop crying. He is distraught because he has hurt her on other occasions and needs spiritual guidance to overcome his anger problems. Is the priest required to report this information to the appropriate authorities? If not required, can the priest choose to make a report of child abuse?
NO. EVEN THOUGH MEMBERS OF THE CLERGY ARE “MANDATED REPORTERS” OF CHILD ABUSE, PENNSYLVANIA LAW OF PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATIONS EXEMPTS PRIESTS FROM TELLING AUTHORITIES ABOUT THEIR PARISHIONERS’ CONFIDENTIAL DISCLOSURES. IN FACT, A PRIEST CANNOT BE FORCED TO DISCLOSE THESE COMMUNICATIONS TO POLICE OR OTHER AUTHORITIES.
3. While waiting for a friend at a local restaurant, a parishioner sees her priest having lunch, alone. She sits at his table and tells him she is concerned that her adult brother may have had an inappropriate relationship with a child in the neighborhood. When her friend appears, the parishioner waves her over to the priest’s table and continues to talk about her suspicions while her friend listens. Is the priest required or permitted to report this information?
YES. IN THIS SCENARIO, THE COMMUNICATION WAS NOT PRIVATE AS A THIRD PARTY WAS PRESENT DURING PART OF THE CONVERSATION. ALSO, IT DOES NOT APPEAR THAT THE PRIEST WAS ACTING IN THE COURSE OF HIS DUTIES. FINALLY, WAS THE PARISHIONER SEEKING SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE? FROM THE ABOVE, IT DOES NOT APPEAR THAT SHE WAS SEEKING GUIDANCE AS MUCH AS SHE WAS INFORMING THE PRIEST OF HER CONCERNS.
4. A child is dropped off for Sunday School and the priest notices bruises on his arms and face. The priest takes the child aside and asks about the injuries. The little boy tells the priest that his Daddy punched him in the face and grabbed him by the arms and threw him against the wall. The child’s father is a member of the church. Does the priest have a duty to report the injuries?
YES. DESPITE THE FACT THAT THE FATHER IS A MEMBER OF THE CHURCH, HE DID NOT SEEK GUIDANCE OR EVEN TALK TO THE PRIEST OF THE ALLEGED ABUSE. THE PRIEST HAD PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE OF THE CHILD’S CONDITION AND THE CHILD WAS ATTENDING A CHURCH FUNCTION. THE PRIEST WOULD BE REQUIRED TO REPORT HIS SUSPICION OF ABUSE AND TO COOPERATE WITH AUTHORITIES IN THEIR INVESTIGATION.