The Ultimate Hypocrisy (Or: One Side Right – One Side Wrong)


The sanctity of the confessional is inviolable, according to prominent clerics such as Cardinal Pell. As an earlier posting noted, this may come under review during the Royal Commission process with moves towards mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse crimes. The argument on both sides will be complex and vigorous.

Much of the motivation for cover-ups has involved the churches wanting to avoid large pay-outs for compensation. Sometimes, it is “all about the money – stupid.” Yesterday’s posting demonstrated how much more seriously churches have regarded theft over child abuse. In one famous case, the Catholic Church’s lawyers argued that a foetus is not a person, to avoid compensation claims in a medical situation, despite its theological position that life begins at conception.

It seems that even the sanctity of the confessional can be disregarded when money is involved.

While the example covered below involves the Episcopalian church in the U.S., given that the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in Australia both claim the protection of the confessional is absolute and inviolable, lessons can be learnt about the hypocrisy of churches when money is involved. Some of the same arguments that have been used in the case are likely to arise during the Royal Commission.

Mrs. Sheridan Anne Edwards sued her priest, William Rankin, for $5 million for invading her privacy and causing her emotional distress by violating the sanctity of the confessional. She had confessed to stealing church funds and indicated that she was securing a loan to pay back the money. The priest advised her to “get a lawyer”, then subsequently reported her to police and she was duly convicted of fraud. She was sentenced to 7 months’ prison. The priest testified against her at her trial.

In her suit, she claimed that she had a right to expect that her confession would be held in strictest confidence by the priest. Floyd Frisch, attorney and chancellor of a neighboring diocese, testified for the defense that an Episcopalian priest is under an absolute duty to maintain the secrecy of the confession. He stated that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer provides for this principle with the force of law; further, that in difficult cases, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the penitent. [203 Cal. App. 3d 1364]

In contrast, Reverend William Swing, Bishop of the California Diocese (which includes Mrs. Sheridan’s church), gave a different interpretation of Episcopalian church law. He testified that the rules are not as clear or as rigid as suggested and that each incident must be viewed on a case-by-case basis. In his opinion, as the church leader responsible for establishing liturgical practices for all churches within his diocese, the communication between Father Rankin and the defendant was not an “orecular [auricular] confession” but rather a request for pastoral counseling. He believed that the question whether a religious confession or a secular confidence was involved must be decided by each priest individually; that an assurance of confidentiality in a pastoral setting would be binding upon the priest in the absence of the penitent’s change of mind permitting a “judgment call” by the former. After consulting with other church officials, he concluded that Father Rankin had not breached any religious duty. Bishop Swing was of the further opinion that since dual confessions were unusual and defendant had already confessed to Father Gompertz, her second communication to Father Rankin could not ordinarily be considered a true religious confession.

At her trial, Mrs. Edwards had argued that her original conversation with Rankin was intended as a “penitential communication,” and that her revelations and the other evidence acquired as a result should not be used against her. She cited a state statute that provides that “a penitent . . . has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, a penitential communication.”

Rankin, however, testified that he believed the statements she made to him were secular in nature and came from someone seeking counseling, not absolution. Judge Joseph G. Wilson held that the statements were not entitled to special protection and, at the conclusion of a non-jury trial, found Edwards guilty. The court ruled that the so-called “minister’s privilege,” a legal protection recognized in various forms throughout the country, did not apply when an individual was seeking counseling and not forgiveness. The Church had claimed that Mrs. Edwards had sought counseling rather than forgiveness.

Decisions of the original trial and the civil suit were upheld on appeal.

The first ruling meant that incriminating statements made in a counseling session with a minister are not entitled to special protection and may be used at trial against a defendant. The second noted that church officials had testified that priests were frequently sought for counseling–and that this function was separate and distinct from receiving a religious confession. Rankin himself testified that he believed there was no church doctrine that required him to keep confidential a revelation made during counseling.

So, to bring a thief to justice and avoid a compensation claim, the church successfully argued against its own doctrine on the sanctity of the confessional.

It would be interesting to see if people like Pell consider a confession of paedophilia to be a “secular” or “religious” matter. Also, it should be determined whether or not advice given to a confessed paedophile (such as “seek professional help”) would be considered to be “counseling”. There is also the matter raised above about a second confession not being a true confession. That is, can someone only “confess” once, allowing the second person to report the confession to the authorities?

When it comes to churches and money, on issues like this, to quote Bob Dylan – “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

Read more here:

TOMORROW: Where are we now (this time)?

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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