Confidentiality, Crime, and the Clergy

What responsibilities do members of the clergy have to those who entrust them with secrets? What do they owe society?


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Discuss with other religious professionals the ethical dilemmas you have struggled with in our Clergy Corner.

A priest's decision, 12 years after the fact, to reveal the confession of a now-dead murderer overturned the conviction of the two men who had been imprisoned for the crime. We asked clergy from several different faiths what they would do if someone confessed a crime to them during a private conversation. Here's how they responded:

Rev. Paul Raushenbush, Baptist minister and chaplain at Columbia University:

"The boy [Jesus Fornes] called the clergyperson because of his overwhelming feelings of guilt. The only way for the boy to relieve himself of this guilt was to confess and repent of it to God in the presence of another human being. In a similar situation, I would talk of the promise of forgiveness of sins. I would emphasize the importance of acknowledging sin in the process of forgiveness. I would inform him of my intention to tell the police that the people they had locked up were innocent. I would urge him to come with me and turn himself in, and state my willingness to stick with him through whatever might come if he was willing to go with me. If he would not, I think the appropriate action would be to go to the police but not reveal the identity of the person who confessed.

Do you trust your clergyperson with your secrets?
Yes. I know they will keep them confidential.
Yes, but not everything--some things are just between God and me.
Sometimes, but I worry that they might mention them by accident.
No, I've heard people's secrets used as sermon topics.
No. I prefer to use a mental health professional.
View Results

I was once approached by a clergyperson who was an acquaintance of mine asking for confidential advice. The subject was a relationship this person was beginning with a married person in the congregation. I did respect the confidentiality of that discussion. I also expressed my negative view on the relationship and laid out specific consequences of such actions. I followed up over the weeks to see what had become of the situation, which fortunately ended before it had gone anywhere.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, and author of "The Book of Jewish Values":

I would not feel that my primary responsibility was to safeguard the secret of the murderer, particularly in an instance in which there would now be additional innocent victims. How many lives is such a person entitled to destroy?

I believe that it would be better if a clergyman in this unfortunate situation informed the police of the information that had been confided to him. I would not suggest that the clergyman feel bound to inform the killer that he would do this, since given the man's violent nature one has a right to be afraid of what the killer will do to protect his secret. The biblical verse that would guide me in such a situation is Leviticus 19:16, "Do not stand by while your neighbor's blood is shed," which Jewish law understands as mandating that we not withhold help or information that can be of life-and-death significance to another person. If you have information that can free innocent men from prison, I believe that qualifies as being in the category of life-and-death significance.

Imam Sa'dullah Khan of the Islamic Center of Southern California:

In Islam there is no concept of confession because nobody can absolve you of your sins. Nobody can pardon you on behalf of God. In Islam, only God can forgive you. Each and every person is held accountable for his or her deeds. When you sin, you have to repent, and you have to make restitution to the person you have harmed. You cannot only ask for forgiveness--justice has to be served.

As an imam, I find that many people confide their "secrets" to me. This is permissible. You can keep the secret and you can give that person advice. In fact, the Qur'an advises us not to publicize our shortcomings. (Chapter 4, Verse 148)

But Muslims have a religious duty to ensure that justice prevails. When something wrong is done towards someone else, and someone comes to you and confides to you, you cannot keep quiet. This is made very clear in the Qur'an: "Justice and goodness under all circumstances." (Chapter 16, Verse 90)

Continued on page 2: »

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