Forum Article  |  2019-2020

THE CLERGY-PENITENT PRIVILEGE: THE ROLE OF CLERGY IN PERPETUATING AND PREVENTING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

by Kami Orton

Domestic violence occurs at alarming rates in all socioeconomic levels, races, locations, sexual orientations, and professions. Domestic violence occurs at similar frequencies among religious and non-religious individuals. Clergy play an important role in religious communities. The clergy-penitent privilege was created to protect the relationship between clergy and communicant and prevents clergy from testifying about spiritual communications. However, the privilege is currently an absolute privilege which is unnecessary and hurts victims and survivors of domestic violence. Additionally, the statutorily written privilege is not aligned with the application and practice of the privilege. Practice indicates clergy tend to desire to testify and view the privilege very narrowly. A qualified clergy-penitent privilege would strike a more appropriate balance between protecting religious freedom and obtaining justice. Furthermore, clergy-penitent privileges often conflict with mandatory child abuse reporting laws. Abrogating the privilege as to child abuse will compel clergy to comply with mandatory reporting laws and protect vulnerable children.