For 12 years, he said, he did not tell anyone that a teenager hadadmitted to a murder for which two others are now serving time.
Towle, 65, testified that he kept quiet because he considered the 1989confession by Jesus Fornes confidential. But once the priest learned hisheart-to-heart talk could be central to an appeal by the two men who saythey were falsely convicted in the 1987 slaying, he questioned whetherit was a sacramental confession as defined by Roman Catholic law. Hereached the conclusion that it wasn't, even though he had absolvedFornes of his sin.
Besides lending high drama to the case, the priest's decision to comeforward has posed the question of what constitutes a confession in theRoman Catholic Church.
Prosecutors oppose the request for a new trial, saying eyewitnessaccounts and other evidence prove the two defendants are the killers.
They also say that Fornes' words are a theologically valid confessionand are thus inadmissible in court under a state law establishing the"clergy-penitent privilege." Under the law, the privilege can bewaived if the confessor agrees. However, Fornes is dead; he was killedfour years ago.
Across the country, state courts have generally ruled that priests andother clergy are not required to disclose admissions made bycongregants. Last month, for instance, a Washington state judge ruledthat a jury may not hear a man's alleged confession to a church elder ina molestation case.