Earlier this week, I received a phone call from the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. He told me that he was assisting another reporter on a local news story and had a few questions for me. Niraj described the case to me.
In 2009, a young girl reported to police that two years earlier, when she was 9-years-old, she was raped by a 15-year-old male cousin at a sleepover at her home. The boy's pastor was informed of the allegation and he summoned the boy and his mother to the Metro Baptist Church in Belleville, Mich., to be questioned about the incident. The boy confessed to his pastor about the rape and then they prayed. The pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan, went to the authorities and has since testified about the confession. Is that legal? Is that ethical?
It's a horrible situation, but it also presents a host of interesting legal and ethical questions about what is known as pastor-penitent privilege. This privilege varies from state to state, but in Michigan it is protected in the same way as attorney-client privilege. In the Detroit Free Press article I explained that I honor the confidentiality of people who confess to me, but "if information that is confided in me would lead to serious harm of another human being, I would feel compelled to tell the authorities. That would include situations of abuse."
It is important that people have a safe space to speak in confidence with their religious leader in addition to their attorney. Judaism does not place the same emphasis on confession as the Catholic faith does, but we do want people to feel comfortable speaking with their rabbi while they're in the process of repentance.
Last night I appeared on Detroit's Fox News affiliate to discuss this topic along with Ray Cassar, the defense attorney for the boy accused of rape. It was a very interesting discussion in which I fully agreed that in this case the pastor's testimony about the accused's confession should not be admissible in court. It is very important to protect the confidential discussions between clergy and congregant (or pastor and parishioner in this case). However, if I ever felt that confidential information I was given by a congregant could prevent a tragic act from taking place, I would feel compelled to break that confidentiality. In that case, the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) would dictate my decision.
Here is the video of last night's episode of "Let It Rip" on Fox2 Detroit: