Michigan Court Discusses Cleric-Congregant Privilege in Recent Sexual Assault Case

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Michigan sexual assault case discussing when a person’s communication with a cleric is privileged. Ultimately, the court concluded that the defendant’s confession to his pastor was not privileged and, thus, was admissible.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant’s wife found text messages on the defendant’s phone suggesting he was having a sexual relationship with a child under the age of 12. The defendant confessed to his wife that he was having a romantic relationship with the child, and that they were both praying to try and stop the behavior.

The defendant also admitted the sexual relationship to his pastor. The conversation came up two times, once while in a car and once while at the defendant’s lawyer’s office. The prosecution called the defendant’s pastor as a witness, and he testified to the defendant’s statements admitting the relationship. A jury convicted the defendant, and the judge sentenced him to 25 to 50 years.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court improperly allowed the prosecution to admit the pastor’s testimony based on the cleric-congregant privilege. Some communication, such as that between a lawyer and their client, is privileged. If communication is privileged, the person hearing the remarks of another cannot be compelled to testify against the person who made the remarks.

The cleric-congregant privilege prevents the use of “any communication made by a congregant to his or her cleric when that communication was necessary to enable the cleric” to serve as a cleric. Michigan courts use a three-factor test when determining if the privilege exists:

  1. The communication must be necessary to allow the cleric to serve a religious function, such as offering guidance, counseling, forgiveness, or discipline;
  2. The communication must be made to the cleric in their religious capacity as a part of their job;
  3. The communication must be “made as part of the discipline enjoined by the cleric’s
    Denomination.”

The defendant’s claim on appeal was that he need only establish the first and second or first and third elements, essentially that the second and third elements were disjunctive. The court disagreed, holding that a defendant must meet each of the three elements to qualify for the privilege.

Here, the court acknowledged that the first time the defendant spoke to his pastor, it may have been in the pastor’s spiritual capacity. However, the following day, the defendant asked his pastor to meet with the defendant’s lawyer. The court noted that the defendant was friends with his pastor, as well, making it less clear that the communication was for religious purposes.

Have You Been Arrested for a Michigan Sex Offense?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a serious Michigan sex crime, contact Michigan Defense Law for immediate assistance. Many times, these cases come down to the testimony of one or two witnesses, making the admissibility and credibility of witness testimony crucial. Attorney Paul J. Tafelski at Michigan Defense Law is a veteran Macomb County criminal defense attorney with extensive experience effectively handling sexual assault cases in the pretrial and trial stages. To learn more, call 248-451-2200 to schedule a free consultation today.

Contact Information