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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Deacon Blues: New Jersey Court Finds Confession Inadmissible Based Upon Cleric-Penitent Privilege

27 year-old Emerzon Gomez has been accused of sexually assaulting a 14 year-old girl, but pursuant to an evidentiary ruling by a New Jersey Superior Court judge, the jury hearing his case will never hear his alleged confession.  Pastor Milton Mendez of Iglesias Cristiana Ministerios in North Bergen learned that the 14 year-old parishioner told her school principal that she had oral sex with Gomez, leading Mendez to arrange a private meeting with Gomez.  Mendez was not only Gomez' pastor; he was also his employer as Gomez babysat for Mendez' two daughters. 

According to Mendez, Gomez confessed that he had sexual relations with the 14 year-old.  The prosecution claimed that Mendez should be able to testify concerning this confession at trial because Mendez was acting more as an employer and concerned parent than as a spiritual guide in obtaining Gomez' confession.

Defense counsel countered that Gomez' confession was covered by New Jersey Rule of Evidence 511, its cleric-penitent privilege.  Pursuant to this Rule, "[a]ny communication made in confidence to a cleric in the cleric's professional character, or as a spiritual advisor in the course of the discipline or practice of the religious body to which the cleric belongs or of the religion which the cleric professes, shall be privileged. Privileged communications shall include confessions and other communications made in confidence between and among the cleric and individuals, couples, families or groups in the exercise of the cleric's professional or spiritual counseling role."  In siding with defense counsel, Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Caposela noted that Mendez had stated that his conversation with Gomez included reflection on their relationship with God. 

I agree with the judge's decision because it seems clear to me that Gomez was seeking spiritual counseling from Mendez, but I will note that there is at least one prior New Jersey case that came to the opposite conclusion based on  somewhat similar facts.  In State v. Cary, 751 A.2d 620 (N.J.Super.A.D. 2000), a New Jersey court found that the cleric-penitent privilege did not apply when the defendant made a confession to a deacon who was also a police officer.  Like in Gomez' case, the deacon in Cary discussed religious matters with the defendant and even prayed with him. See id. at 626.  Unlike in Gomez' case. however, the deacon/police officer in Cary read the defendant his rights and informed him of his right to remain silent, leading the court to find that the defendant had no expectation that his statements would be privileged. 

-CM

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