How Priest-Penitent Privilege Works Under Texas Law
As we’ve discussed, the rules of evidence generally allow in whatever evidence might help the jury decide the case. Still, there is more to life than what happens in a court of law—and thankfully, lawyers are empowered to protect certain areas of their clients’ lives. One of those areas is a client’s religion
The “priest-penitent” privilege in a personal injury case boils down to this: anything you say to your priest, minister, rabbi, imam, etc. about the case can be kept out of court.
Questions answered on this page
- Are conversations with a religious leader or clergy member considered confidential?
- Can my conversation with my religious leader be used in a personal injury case?
- How can a lawyer help me in a personal injury case?
We have the priest-penitent privilege to protect religion.
America values freedom of religion. It’s written within our Constitution and is part of the American social fabric. Regardless of the faith, most religions seem to have spiritual leaders to whom congregants confide serious problems. As the name implies, the privilege was created for people who feel they’ve done something wrong/committed a sin and they want to seek some kind of forgiveness—or at least get it off their chests. And as we all know, some faiths believe that the afterlife will be denied to a believer unless he formally seeks forgiveness through a priest of some kind.
Many years ago, courts decided that these conversations simply had no place in the public if the “penitent” didn’t want them out there. This has created awkward situations that seem to fly against justice. For example, many accused criminals have simultaneously confessed to a minister that they committed the act all while pleading not-guilty in court. Still, courts refuse to invade the special province of a minister and a believer.
Lastly, this privilege applies to all religions. The title “priest,” which to most invokes Christianity, actually means anyone who occupies a similar position in that religion. So, if you’re an adherent to a religion that is not Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, it is the exact same.
Personal injury victims still must meet specific qualifications to invoke the privilege.
If you and your lawyer feel that communications between you and your minister should be kept confidential, you’ll need to prove to the court several things:
- The person you spoke with was an actual “priest:” We touched on this above, but the individual you spoke with can’t simply be a fellow believer, but a leader. For many faiths, this is a rather easy task since the person will actually have the title “priest” or “rabbi.” But the burden is on you and your lawyer to show the person fits within the rule’s definition
- The conversation was in private: Just like with an attorney-client privilege, it has to be just you and the priest doing the talking. The idea is that, if you didn’t want the discussion out in the public, you’d make sure it was just the two of you.
- You went to the priest in his “professional capacity”: Just because a clergyman qualifies as a “priest,” you must be able to make some showing that you went to him for religious reasons. Keep in mind that the “penitent” portion of the rule does not mean you were speaking to the priest to confess sin, but rather were seeking his spiritual counsel. In other words, if you were seeking counsel about even the lawsuit itself, that qualifies.
Your lawyer should be well-versed in this privilege.
What you say to your religious leader is not automatically kept confidential. Your attorney should specifically instruct you before you testify that you cannot reveal any conversations you had with your priest. Lawyers can be forgetful about this and simply let the private conversations you had become part of the record. Not only does this violate your right to privacy in your religious life, but could be very damaging to your case. This is why you need an attorney who knows the rules of evidence and how to use them.
The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices, based in Dallas, TX, have successfully represented thousands of people over the last 25 years. During that time, we’ve had clients of every imaginable faith and belief. We’ve prided ourselves on treating each as an individual who deserves equal respect. No matter your beliefs, we’re here to make the lawsuit process as easy as possible for you and your family. Call us today at (855) 326-0000 to learn what your rights are.
Related Articles for Further Reading: