Priest Privilege

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Debra: 

Does a priest legally have to report if someone confesses a murder to him?

Signed:  Conflicted Catholic

Dear CC:

Your question made my heart skip a beat. The thought of one human being unnecessarily taking another’s life is concerning. The only way I can answer your question is to view it from an academic view, as the thought of murder is…well….dark.

First, I should disclose that I was raised Roman Catholic, so I have very clear memories of the confessional booth. I would enter, donned in my little blue-plaid skirt and crisp white blouse, make the sign of the cross, and then begin, “Bless me Father; for I have sinned…it has been xxx weeks since my last confession”. I would scroll through my mental roll-a-dex of the Ten Commandments, which I had memorized, and then I would try to remember what awful sin I committed so I would have something to say to the priest. “Umm, I was mean to my brother; I didn’t do all of my Saturday chores, etc.” I was always forgiven, and then exited the booth to say 10 Hail Mary’s for my penance.

Even then, at the tender age of 12, I knew there was something special about that confessional booth. Indeed, there is. Legally, it is called the clergy-penitent privilege. The origins of the privilege date back to the Roman Catholic Church, where the seal of the confessional is “inviolable”. In essence, whatever was told to the priest was deemed a sacred secret, never to be repeated. Confession served a secular purpose—to lead the sinner to repentance and spiritual salvation. In 1917, the Roman Catholic Church codified this privilege as Canon 889, which stated in part that “ a confessor will diligently take care that neither by word nor by sign…will [the priest] betray in the slightest anyone’s sin”. This privilege is taken so seriously that a priest can be excommunicated if he discloses what is said in the confessional booth.

Fast forward to circa 2015.  Many states, including California, still recognize the need for utmost discretion and secrecy between the clergy and the members of the church…but certain restraints are imposed.  For example, the communication must be made in confidence in the course of the clergy’s discipline or practice.  Some courts have looked at this issue and decided, for example, that a frantic telephone call to your pastor seeking marital advice/counseling, may not invoke the privilege.

After conducting some basic research on this issue, I have concluded that the sacramental seal of confession is absolute in California.  The priest cannot report anything that is said in confession, even if the confessor admits to an awful act like child abuse.  If the confessor babbles about his or her intent to commit a future crime, even that cannot be revealed to authorities, although some legal analysts and observers are challenging this absolute right.  Now, with that said, there are no prohibitions for the priest to counsel and guide the confessor to do the right thing—to voluntarily turn themselves into the authorities (the criminal may receive a lighter sentence, and certainly their conscience might weigh less) or to not commit a future crime.

Priests are not the only professionals who enjoy privileged communication. For example, the relationship between a psychotherapist and patient, and even between an attorney and client, are also deemed worthy of the veil of secrecy, never to be disclosed. However, unlike the clergy-penitent privilege, if a future crime is admitted to your psychotherapist or attorney, then there may be a duty to report such to the authorities.

In summary, it appears that priests and other clergy enjoy an absolute privilege to protect and maintain whatever secrets are told. Perhaps if we just adopt Albert Einstein’s definition of “True Religion”, the issue of what a priest can and cannot reveal would never arise.

“True Religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness”.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 33 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email(, phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).
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