Confessional privilege (United States)
All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have enacted statutory privileges providing that at least some communications between clergyman and parishioners are privileged.
Prior to the adoption of statutory protections, there was some protection under common law.
- New York: In People v. Phillips (1 Southwest L. J., 90), in the year 1813, the Court of General Sessions in New York recognized the privilege as in a decision rendered by De Witt Clinton, recognized the privilege as applying to Rev. Anthony Kohlmann, S.J., who refused to reveal in court information received under the seal of confession. (Incidentally, the successful argument in favor of the privilege was made by William Sampson, a Protestant lawyer exiled from Ireland for defending Catholics.)
There is also Smith's case reported in the "New York City Hall Recorder", vol. II, p. 77, which, apparently, was decided in the same way.
- Massachusetts: In Commonwealth v. Drake [(1818) 15 Mass., 154], it was argued on the one side that a confession of a criminal offence made penitentially by a member of a certain Church to other members, in accordance with the discipline of that Church, may not be given in evidence. These others (who were not clergy) were called as witnesses. The solicitor-general argued that religious confession was not protected from disclosure. He also took the point that in this case "the confession was not to the church nor required by any known ecclesiastical rule", but was made voluntarily to friends and neighbours. The court held that the evidence was rightly received (not protected).
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The privilege is defined in over 50 separate statutes and may therefore vary in important ways:
- Who qualifies as a member of the clergy
- What communications are covered by the privilege
- Who holds the privilege
- "The First Amendment Basis for the Clergyman-Communicant Privilege"[dead link]
- "The Catholic Question in America", by Anthony Kohlman and William Sampson, New York, 1813
- Privilege (evidence)
- Duty of confidentiality
- Admissible evidence
- I Confess, a 1953 Alfred Hitchcock film in which priest-penitent privilege is prominently featured
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