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Confession of Crimes Leads to a Dilemma for the Clergy

Times Staff Writer

From the start of his counseling sessions, Albert M. Alegrete posed a problem for the associate pastor of a San Fernando Valley church.

Alegrete at first talked merely about his involvement in “sexual immorality” with women, but then let it be known that the women were actually girls and that he made them participate by pretending to have a gun.

The Rev. Richard A. Hines of Grace Community Church of the Valley said he believed strongly that Alegrete should “face up to his responsibility.” However, it was two years after their first counseling session before officials of the Sun Valley church finally demanded that he confess his sins, not only to God, but also to civil authorities.

Sentenced to 44 Years

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By then, police were aware of Alegrete, having been tipped off by one of his victims. In May, Alegrete was sentenced to 44 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting five girls and kidnaping a sixth in 1981 and 1982.

The case illustrates a difficult question faced periodically by the clergy: What do they do when penitents, during confession or counseling, admit to transgressions that may constitute crimes?

There is no consensus among members of the clergy on their responsibility in such cases. Some believe in going to police, others say they would go to jail before turning into informants.

The Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches view confession as a sacrament and therefore confidential, but most other clerics develop their own guidelines.

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“The priest cannot reveal in any way, shape or form anything he hears in the confessionals,” said the Rev. Joseph Battaglia, director of communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I cannot break the seal of confession.” He and others say any breach of confidentiality would destroy the trust necessary between a priest and his congregation.

On the other hand, the Rev. Jess C. Moody, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys, said that, when he starts counseling congregants, he tells them: “I will guarantee you total confidentiality except in reference to that which is a crime that affects other people’s lives.”

‘Turned in That Day’

Staff members at the church, he said, are told, “If a person confesses child molestation, they’re to be turned in that day.”

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A more typical middle ground is held by Isaiah Zeldin, senior rabbi of the 12,000-member Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air. He said he is “bound by the fact that whatever the person confesses to us is confidential.” But, in the unlikely event that a serial killer walked into his office to talk about the murders, Zeldin said, “I could see myself going to police.”

He added: “I’ve been a rabbi here for 40 years, and I have the largest congregation in the West, and nobody’s ever come to me and confessed to murder.”

Yet the issue has been more than abstract for the clergy in a series of criminal and civil cases around the country.

In Florida, a Nazarene minister was sentenced to 60 days in jail for contempt of court in 1984 for refusing to testify about a counseling session with a former police officer accused of sexually molesting a 6-year-old girl.

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The minister, John Mellish, was released on bond after spending one night behind bars. Last year, the state’s law was changed so that the clergy cannot be forced to testify about what is heard during confessions or counseling.

In a substantially different case last year, a Marin County woman sued an Episcopal priest, alleging that he passed on to police her admission that she embezzled $28,000 from their church.

All states except West Virginia have laws that provide some form of legal protection for private communications between the clergy and the people they serve, according to William Harold Tiemann, a Presbyterian church executive in Charlotte, N.C., and co-author of “The Right to Silence,” a book on clerical privilege.

Legal guarantees of confidentiality normally cover communications with other professionals who hear sensitive information, such as lawyers and physicians. In California, however, physicians are obliged to report cases of child abuse to police--something the clergy is not required to do.

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Under California law, clerics can claim the right of confidentiality for communication that takes place during confession or counseling, meaning they cannot be forced to testify in civil or criminal proceedings.

The law also provides that a penitent can demand that the cleric not disclose the confessional information to anyone--and that the cleric is bound to confidentially in such cases.

“What you tell the clergyman under certain circumstances is absolutely privileged,” said Linda Greenberg, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Alegrete. “But all the circumstances must be met, and there’s the rub.”

In law, a privileged communication is one that a person cannot be legally compelled to divulge. For the communication to be privileged, the church or synagogue must have a policy of confidential communications and the confession must be given to someone who normally hears it. If the church lacks a policy on confession, or if the penitent also shares the information with a friend or the police, then the privilege is destroyed, Greenberg noted.

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Cleric’s Silence Urged

Edward M. Gaffney Jr., who teaches a seminar on religion and the law at Loyola Law School, said he advises clergy to keep silent about anything said during a confession even if their church or synagogue has no policy.

“It’s a big mistake for the government to think of rabbis, priests and ministers as the equivalent of cops,” Gaffney said. “I don’t think that ministers of the Torah or ministers of the Gospel are called to be ministers of the state.”

In the case involving the Marin County woman, Sheridan Anne Edwards, the Episcopal priest contended that her admission did not amount to a religious confession. William C. Ibershof, the attorney for the church, said Edwards consented to have the information passed on to select members of the church so that they could correct problems caused by the embezzlement and that the church’s insurance company later requested that police be brought in.

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Edwards was convicted of theft last year, sentenced to seven months in jail and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

Her attorney, Patrick McMahon of San Jose, said she was arranging to repay the money that she took from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, about 15 miles north of San Francisco, when the church turned her in.

“There was a definite violation of trust because she spilled her guts to the pastor in the belief that what she said would be held secret,” McMahon said. “She paid a very big price for her confession.” Edwards’ suit against the priest has not been scheduled for trial.

There is some dispute over how confidential church confessions were heard in their earliest forms.

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It was long believed that the earliest Christian confessions were very public, with the penitent reciting his sins before the assembled church community, but some scholars hold that confession may have been primarily private. A letter written in AD 459 by Pope Leo I rejected as an abuse the practice then followed by some church leaders of compelling penitents to read in public an explicit list of personal sins.

Confidentiality Assured

In any case, by the time of the Council of Trent in 1551, the present Roman Catholic position assuring complete confidentiality in all matters of confession was well established. It is enunciated in Canons 889 and 890 of church law.

Other churches--the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example--not only permit but, in some cases, require that confessional material be divulged in a church court.

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When Clair Harward, a Mormon living in Ogden, Utah, was diagnosed as an AIDS patient in 1984 and went to his Mormon lay bishop for counseling, the bishop told him to give up his homosexual friends and identify his past sexual partners. Harward refused, saying it would be “unethical” to identify his friends. Harward, who died in March, was excommunicated in a bishops’ court.

Lewis Smedes, professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical Protestant institution in Pasadena, argues that the clergy should disclose confessions only when the penitent’s actions threaten another person, especially in offenses against children.

“But there’s a vast gray area in which the pastor must exercise prudence, wisdom and discretion, and ultimately take responsibility for what he or she does,” said Smedes, author of the book, “Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Do Not Deserve.”

Indeed, most clerics recently interviewed on the subject espoused the case-by-case approach suggested by Smedes. Many said they would break the confidentiality in cases involving child molesters, serial rapists and murderers, and the suicidal.

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Others noted that people who are serious about repentance usually demonstrate their willingness to change through action, such as restitution to victims or surrendering to authorities.

‘The Last Resource’

“I have never yet had a person come to me to confess a crime and say they’re not ready to do something about it,” Zeldin of the Stephen S. Wise Temple said. “We are the last resource for a person with an acute difficulty, and the assumption is if the person came to us and made a confession of wrongdoing, then the person eventually wants to come clean. Otherwise, why would he come to you?”

The Rev. Andrew Keady, a priest at Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Woodland Hills, similarly said that, although he would never disclose information confessed to him, “You would be urged very strongly to confess your sin, to make restitution, to go to the proper authority.”

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Alegrete was treated much along these lines at the evangelical Christian church that he attended.

In testimony at Alegrete’s sentencing hearing, Hines recalled that after Alegrete’s first counseling session at Grace Community Church in 1982, he took Alegrete to a lawyer to talk about his admissions of sexual misconduct with girls. Alegrete agreed he should turn himself in, Hines said.

In fact, Alegrete did not turn himself in then and he subsequently kidnaped another girl, who managed to escape only by jumping out of his moving car.

Hines said he eventually lost track of Alegrete. But Hines confronted him in 1984 when Alegrete’s name appeared on a list of people under consideration to become deacons, the associate pastor said.

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When asked whether he had resolved the past incidents, “Al said that his psychiatric counselor told him that as long as he confessed his sins to God, he didn’t have to turn himself in,” Hines said. “So we started to pursue Al heavily to have him face up to his responsibility.”

Hines said he asked a friend who was a former Los Angeles police detective to confer privately with detectives still on the force to find out if Alegrete was wanted. He learned that police, indeed, were looking for Alegrete.

Victim Spots Alegrete

One of the young victims and her mother, after searching for her attacker for two years, had spotted Alegrete outside a San Fernando Valley school, noted his car license plate number and contacted police. Alegrete had moved, however, and police had been unable to find him immediately.

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John F. MacArthur Jr., the senior pastor, said Hines then went to Alegrete with the message that police knew his identity. The message was, “You turn yourself in or we do,” he said.

Alegrete did turn himself in and confessed to molestations beyond the one to which police had linked him.

Prosecutor Greenberg said both she and the victims’ families believe the church acted properly in the case.

“They followed their church discipline,” Greenberg said. “Once they did find out the true facts, they acted to get him to turn himself in.”

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It was not the only time in recent years that Grace Community Church was reminded that counseling of members is a sensitive matter.

Last year, the church was the defendant in the nation’s first “clergy malpractice” trial on a couple’s lawsuit alleging that improper counseling there led to the suicide of their son, Kenneth Nally. The suit was dismissed mid-trial by a judge who ruled that any judicial effort to set standards for pastoral counseling would violate the First Amendment separation of church and state. The case is on appeal.

‘Obligated to Report’

Of the clerics recently interviewed about their policies on handling confessions of crimes, Grace Community Church’s MacArthur took the strongest pro-law enforcement stance. “If we know of anyone who has committed any crime, we are obligated to report them to police,” he said.

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Although Grace Community Church believes in compassion, MacArthur said, it also believes that genuine repentance for crimes requires exposure to a “just punishment.”

“If you really want to make it right, go back and tell them you did it. Otherwise, you haven’t demonstrated the fullness of repentance.”


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