Should Courts Used Taped Confessions?

Q: A recent court case involved a situation in which a prison system had taped a prisoner’s confession without his or the priest’s knowledge. A Protestant minister told me that the tape should be allowed in court because the Bible requires us to tell the truth, not keep secrets, and thus there is no basis for a priest-confessor privilege.

A: The Protestant minister is flat wrong. First, there are multiple verses in the Bible which talk about not revealing secrets (e.g., Proverbs 11:13, 12:23). While there is a biblical requirement not to lie, there is no biblical requirement to broadcast all the truth that one knows whenever anyone asks.

Second, he appears to admit that the attorney-client privilege is valid and to be honored. However, if what he says about the Bible requiring full-disclosure to the authorities were true then this would demolish the attorney-client privilege as well since what the Bible says about truth-telling applies just as much to lawyers as it does to priests.

Third, experience shows that the attorney-client privilege has been judged beneficial even if this means letting some guilty people go because of it. If that justifies the attorney-client privilege then the same thing can justify the priest-penitent privilege. The advantage of the many in knowing their sins will not be publicly be broadcast justifies the practice, even though it means some people guilty of criminal offenses (which are by no means the worst offenses discussed during confession) will escape civil (though not divine) justice.

Fourth, the Bible requires us to confess our sins to other human beings (Jas. 5:16). On the Protestant model one confesses to just anybody and does so for purely therapeutic purposes, not for absolution. However, in this model the confessor-confessee privilege would be just as needed. People need to know that their sins will not be publicly broadcast or they will not confess them.

Since your Protestant minister friend’s group does not have a guaranteed confidentiality in this area (you can only take another person’s word and hope they will not reveal it, as there is nothing hanging over their head if they do), it is not surprising that there is actually very little confession of sins going on in Protestant communities.

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