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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Forgive Me Father: New Jersey Court Finds Cleric-Penitent Privilege Doesn't Apply In Child Molestation Case

In its opinion yesterday in State v. J.G., 2008 WL 3850772 (N.J.Super.A.D. 2008), the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division reversed a trial court's decision to apply New Jersey's cleric-penitent privilege in the case of a man accused of sexually molesting his daughters.  I agree with the court's conclusion but not its reasoning.  In J.G., in 2000, the defendant's children reported to their mother that their father had sexually abused them.  The mother then contacted her pastor, Glenford Brown, and reported the children's allegations.  While the defendant knew Brown from their native Jamaica, the defendant did not attend Brown's church in New Jersey.

Believing that he had a duty to protect the wife and children, Brown arranged to meet the defendant outside Brown's townhouse.  During that meeting, the defendant, "without directly saying [he] sexually molested them,...acknowledged what he did” and asked Brown, inter alia, "to counsel" him, but Brown declined because he was too angry with defendant and felt that he "needed real psychological help which [Brown] was not qualified to give."  A few weeks later, the defendant went to Brown's church, where he talked with Brown and "acknowledged what he did."  The defendant then asked Brown to baptize him, but Brown told the defendant he could not baptize him because Brown "thought he wanted cover for his actions" and urged the defendant to turn himself in to the police.

The defendant was subsequently charged with molesting his daughters, and he moved to preclude Brown from testifying about his confession pursuant to New Jersey Rule of Evidence 511, its cleric-penitent privilege, which states that:

     "Any 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."

The trial court granted his motion, but the Appellate Division reversed, finding that its analysis was governed by its previous opinion in State v. Cary, 751 A.2d 620 (N.J.Super.A.D. 2000), where it found that to warrant protection under the cleric-penitent privilege, "a person's communication must be made: (1) in confidence; (2) to a cleric; and (3) to the cleric in his or her professional character or role as a spiritual advisor."

The Appellate Division then found that these elements were not satisfied because:

     "(1) defendant did not ask and Brown did not offer to keep the conversation confidential; (2) Brown reached out to defendant-not as a spiritual advisor-but to protect defendant's children; and (3) Brown specifically told defendant he could not counsel him or even baptize him because defendant needed professional help."

I agree with regard to the third point but disagree with regard to the first two points.  I think that the court was wrong on the first point because none of the professional privileges requires a request that the communication at issue be kept confidential.  Could you imagine if we required clients to tell their lawyers to keep their communications confidential before applying the attorney-client privilege or if we required patients to tell their psychiatrists to keep their communications confidential before applying the psychotherapist-patient privilege?  It seems to me that the court placed a burden on the defendant that does not exist under the law.

With regard to the second point, the court wrongfully focused on the state of mind of Brown -- the pastor/cleric -- not the state of mind of the defendant -- the alleged penitent.  In the professional privilege context, it is the state of mind of the possible client/patient/penitent that controls, not the state of mind of the attorney/psychotherapist/clergyperson.  If the former made statements to the latter for the purpose of retaining his services, the statements are covered by the relevant privilege, regardless of the state of mind of the latter.

There is, however, an exception to this general rule, and that is why the court's third point was correct.  When an attorney/psychotherapist/clergyperson affirmatively tells a prospective client/patient/penitent that he will not render him services, any subsequent conversation is not covered by the relevant privilege. See, e.g., People v. Gionis, 9 Cal. 4th 1196 (Cal.App.4th 1995).  And that's exactly what happened in J.G..  Brown told the defendant that he would not counsel him, and the defendant subsequently told him that he molested his daughters.



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EvidenceProf had a post about an interesting ruling in a New Jersey case. The court held that the cleric-penitent privilege did not apply to the facts at hand:In its opinion yesterday in State v. J.G., 2008 WL 3850772 (N.J.Super.A.D. 2008), [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2008 8:43:42 PM


I am confused by your position on point number three. Are you saying you agree because the ruling is consistent with People v. Gionis or because you believe that People v. Gionis was correctly decided?

People v. Gionis does not seem to jive with your explanation under point two. If the penitent's state of mind is the decisive factor, why does that magically stop at the word "no". Even after counseling was refused, the defendant still believed he was talking to a spiritual adviser. The penitent may no longer believe that he is receiving counseling qua formal counseling but the fact that he asked to be baptized is clear evidence that the defendant still saw the person he was speaking to in a spiritual role. I can't think of any logical reason that the importance of the state of mind would change after the word "no". If the penitent's state of mind is decisive for point number two, it must also be decisive for resolving point number three. And that requires you to object to the whole opinion and it's conclusion.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 27, 2008 11:54:26 AM

Well, there's a still a reasonableness factor at play with regard to the client/penitent's state of mind. And I think that the word, "No" is a good dividing line. A prospective client/penitent can reasonably believe that they are receiving or discussing the future receipt of services even though the attorney/clergyperson has no intention of ever rendering services. But once the attorney/clergyperson affirmatively says that they will not render services, any belief by the prospective client/penitent that they will receive services is unreasonable and unprotected.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Aug 28, 2008 4:45:33 AM

I guess I just don't see what is so "reasonable" about it. You make it sound as if a "no" spoken by the minister is an eternal, omnipresent "no". That just doesn't reflect the realities of counseling. In this case, there were two separate encounters. One at the house and a second at the church. And the contexts of the two situations are completely different. While it is true that minister said "no" at that first conversation, it was also a conversation the minister initiated at the defendants home; a conversation where there was no clear admission of guilt. The second conversation took place in a church, initiated by the defendant, where the penitent even asked to be baptized. It seems to me to be unreasonable to say that just because the minister said no at one point in time that all future conversations on that topic become legally forbidden, regardless of the context of the conversation. In the first conversation they minster refused his services and recommended psychological help. There is nothing in the second conversation, at the church, that suggests the defendant was seeking psychological counseling; on the contrary, he was seeking baptism, which is primarily spiritual in nature.

While I understand the minster's desire to speak in this case, I think it sets a very bad precedent. There are sound reasons of public policy why we allow a "ministerial exception" in the first place. This decision certainly makes it less likely that people will seek spiritual advice in the future. It is simply contrary to common sense to force people to guess when it is safe to seek spiritual advice.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 28, 2008 6:54:31 PM

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