“Are church confessions safe?” – CBS Detroit
“Can religious confessions be used against you?” – Detroit Free Press
“Pastor-parishioner privilege? Court of Appeals to hear arguments” – M-Live.com
All of the above headlines refer to a case which is being adjudicated this week by a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel.
And all of them misunderstand at least some aspect of the Sacrament of Confession.
Some Things to Know Up Front
- Confession (big “C”) is a Sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church.
- Baptist churches do not have sacramental confession.
- Newspaper photos depicting confessional booths and heavy drapes may be dramatic, but they are drawn from Catholicism and are not used in Baptist churches.
- What actually happened was a confession (small “c”) during a conversation in a pastor’s office between the pastor, a young man, and the young man’s mother.
- The Seal of Confession (big “C”) is absolute, and for a Catholic priest to reveal what he has heard in the confessional is a grave matter, punishable by immediate excommunication.
The Case in Question
On Thursday, February 9, three Michigan Court of Appeals judges heard arguments in a case that could establish precedent. The case involves a Baptist pastor who is alleged to have—in the explosive words of the media—“broken the seal of confession.”
The complainant alleges that Rev. John Vaprezsan, pastor of Metro Baptist Church in Belleville, Michigan, betrayed a confidence when he testified in a 2009 court hearing against Samuel Bragg.
In 2009, seventeen-year-old Samuel Bragg and his mother met with Pastor Vaprezsan in his office at the church. Vaprezsan had heard from the mother of a young girl that his young parishioner had sexually assaulted the girl two years earlier, during a sleepover at his home. Bragg allegedly warned the girl, who was only nine years old, that he’d kill her if she ever told anyone about what had happened. But in March 2009, after attending a “purity rally” at the church, the girl confided in her mother.
Pastor Vaprezsan called Bragg and his mother, the church secretary, in to talk. He questioned Bragg about the incident; and after only ten minutes, the young man admitted that the girl’s statement was true. Bragg had been only fifteen at the time of the alleged rape. The counseling session ended with Pastor Vaprezsan, Samuel Bragg and his mother praying together.
And here’s the sticky legal issue: According to court documents, Vaprezsan was contacted by the police for a statement—which he provided. As a result of the pastor’s testimony, Bragg is now charged with criminal sexual conduct.
The case was appealed to Wayne County Circuit Court, where Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway ruled that a member of the clergy was protected by penitent privilege, and that forcing Vaprezsan to testify in court violates the doctrine of separation of church and state.
However, the Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor, Toni Odette, appealed Hathaway’s decision and insisted that privilege shouldn’t apply in Bragg’s case. Odette believes that since the communication was initiated by the pastor and not by Bragg, since Bragg’s mother was there, and since the purpose was to ascertain Bragg’s guilt and not for spiritual guidance or church discipline, clerical privilege should not be applied.
Bragg’s attorney, Farmington Hills lawyer Raymond Cassar, calls the case “very dangerous” because it could have repercussions for religion. He is afraid that no one will be able to tell a priest or minister anything in confidence, if there is a possibility that the clergyman will testify against them in court. “This has the potential,” he warns, “of turning men and women of the cloth into agents of the police.”
Bragg is free on bond, pending trial on a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child younger than 13. The case is likely to turn on whether or not Vaprezsan’s testimony is thrown out. If found guilty, Bragg would serve a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.
The Michigan Court of Appeals is expected to rule within just a few weeks.
Michigan Laws Pertaining to Priest-Penitent Privilege
Michigan Compiled Law 600.2156: No minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner, shall be allowed to disclose any confessions made to him in his professional character, in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination.
Michigan Compiled Law 767.5a: Any communications between attorneys and their clients, between members of the clergy and members of their respective churches, and between physicians and their patients are hereby declared to be privileged and confidential when those communications were necessary to enable the attorneys, members of the clergy, or physicians to serve as such attorney, member of the clergy or physician.
What Does Canon Law Say About the Seal of Confession?
Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law says “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.”
A priest, then, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity.
He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action.
A Decree from the Holy Office (Nov. 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.
The Code of Canon Law (No. 1388.1) states, “A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so only indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense.”
The sacramental seal of confession is sacred in the eyes of the Church, and is protected by the severity of the punishment.