Saturday, August 24, 2013

COA Upholds Priest-Penitent Privilege

Yesterday, the Michigan Court of Appeals, in a per curiam opinion, affirmed the dismissal of charges against John Prominski, the pastor at Resurrection Life Church in Ionia, Michigan who had been charged by the Ionia County Prosecutor's Office with failing to report suspected child abuse.  People v Prominski, Docket No. 309682.

Section 3 of the Michigan Child Protection Law mandates the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect to the authorities by members of the clergy. MCL 722.623.  However, MCL 722.631, in abrogating any other privileged communications, retains what we commonly refer to as the "priest-penitent" privilege, those communications "made to a member of the clergy in his or her professional character in a confession or similarly confidential communication."

In 2009, one of Rev. Prominski's parishioners approached him, seeking his advice as to what to do, because she suspected that her husband was molesting her two young daughters.  She told her pastor that her husband was making the girls touch themselves, and she wanted to know if she should report her suspicions to the authorities.  Rev. Prominski did not report the suspected abuse but agreed to speak to the husband and counsel him.  Two years later, the mother approached her pastor again and told him that the abuse was continuing and that she had discovered her husband in the girls' room in the middle of the night and her daughter screaming that he had touched her.  Rev. Prominski advised the mother to report the abuse or he would.  The woman's husband was prosecuted and imprisoned in 2012.

The prosecution, upon discovering the 2009 conversation between Rev. Prominski and the mother, charged him with failing to report the suspected abuse, a 93-day misdemeanor under MCL 722.633(2).  The district court, Judge Raymond P. Voet, dismissed the charge, holding: "I can’t find anything but that this was done within exactly what the privilege was intended to target," because the mother went to her pastor "for guidance, advice and expected that the conversation be kept private."  The Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal and the prosecution sought leave to appeal.

The prosecution argued that the mother's revelations to the defendant were not a confession in the traditional sense because she was not admitting any wrongdoing on her own part, but was divulging the wrongdoing of another person, her husband.  The Court of Appeals was not persuaded because the privilege identified in Section 11, protects not only confessions but also "similarly confidential" communications between the clergy and the parishioner.  Clearly, the mother here had approached her pastor to seek his guidance and advice on what to do, and she did not expect that her conversations were going to be made public without her consent.

The prosecution was represented in the Court of Appeals by Kristen Stinedurf and Rev. Prominski was represented by Grand Rapids attorney, Bruce Alan Block.

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