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What happens in a church confession, stays in a church confession... Right? Generally speaking, yes -- but not always.
Statements made to a minister, priest, rabbi, or other religious leader are generally considered privileged or confidential communications. State laws generally exempt a pastor from having to testify in court, or to law-enforcement, about what was discussed in a church confession.
The so-called priest-penitent privilege, however, can be challenged in court. And some states are changing their laws in response to a rash of clergy child-abuse cases.
American courts began to recognize a church confession's priest-penitent privilege in 1813, in a case called People v. Philips. The case involved Irish Catholic refugees in New York City, and held their church confessions could not be used in court. (A 2004 article in a psychiatric law journal explains the legal history.)
Fifteen years later, New York passed the nation's first law establishing a priest-penitent privilege. All 50 states now have similar statutes on the books.
Cases challenging the privilege for church confessions shed light on its limits. For example, some cases have questioned the intent of the parishioner: Was she confessing to her priest, or just seeking informal, friendly advice?
A more recent case in Michigan reveals another challenge to the privilege: Was the confession truly "confidential"? Maybe not, if a third party is in the same room at the time, the Detroit Free Press reports.
Lawmakers are also carving out exceptions for child-abuse reporting. At least six states explicitly deny the clergy privilege in child-abuse cases, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other states have yet to address the issue.
Finally, the priest-penitent privilege can be waived. Some states require both a priest and a parishioner to waive the privilege, while others allow one or the other to grant a waiver. Because of different state laws, it may be best to consult a local attorney to see how the law handles church confessions where you live.