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Home > Church & Non-Profit > Clergy-Communicant Privilege

Clergy-Communicant Privilege in Illinois

We Represent Churches, Religious Organizations, and Other Non-Profits Throughout Illinois

At MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle, Ltd. , we understand that faith-based organizations are a vital part of communities across the United States. They provide much-needed service ranging from spiritual advice to education to charitable services. One of the core functions of many churches and other religious organizations involves listening to the private concerns of parishioners, whether in the form of confession or for the purpose of providing spiritual guidance. In order to perform that function, there must be a level of candid truthfulness between the Pastor and the parishioner. For conversations to be fully candid, parishioners have to know that their Pastor will be kept confidential between the parishioner, the clergy member, and God.

But what happens when there is a criminal investigation or other legal matter that involves the parishioner? What if the subject of the discussions between the clergy member and the parishioner is relevant to the legal matter? Can a court require the clergyperson to divulge the secrets of their parishioner? Must the clergyperson report information they learn to the police? If your church or other religious organization becomes involved in a legal matter, the Illinois nonprofit lawyers at MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle, Ltd. can help you protect your rights as well as those of your religious community.

The Clergy-Communicant Privilege

There is an evidentiary privilege that protects the confidences of religious confession from disclosure in court. The clergy-communicant or clergy-penitent privilege is one of the oldest and most well-known privileges in United States law, reflecting the desire of lawmakers and courts to preserve the candid relationship between parishioners and clergyperson. Broadly speaking, the rule prevents a court or other government entity from forcing a clergyperson to disclose certain communications involving spiritual guidance made in confidence with a parishioner. The rule is applied differently in different States and Federal court, depending on whether and how it is specifically enumerated in statutes or evidence codes or stands as a matter of common law decisions from the courts.

Illinois’ Confidential Clergy Communications Privilege

Illinois is one of several states that includes a specific evidentiary privilege relating to confidential communications between clergy members and penitents. According to the statute, a clergyperson or other accredited practitioner of a religious denomination cannot be compelled to disclose to a court, administrative board, agency, or public officer, a confession or admission made to him or her in his or her professional capacity as a spiritual advisor. The privilege goes even further, extending to information obtained by the religious official in the course of duties as a religious official or spiritual advisor.

Limits on the privilege

Like any evidentiary privilege, there are limits. The scope of Illinois’ clergy-communicant privilege is limited to information conveyed in the course of making an admission or confession to a clergy member in their capacity as a spiritual counselor. If the circumstances of the discussion are outside the confines of spiritual guidance or another clear, professional, private advisory situation, then the conversation may not be protected. Clergypersons have a dynamic relationship with parishioners, and it is not always clear when they are specifically acting as a spiritual advisor. Additionally, the privilege applies only to professional members of the clergy. The privilege does not typically extend to non-clergy employees such as teachers or other staff, and the privilege may be defeated if a third party was present for the communication.

There are also specific situations or types of information that may not be protected by the clergy-communicant privilege. The Illinois clergy-communicant privilege may not apply to situations where a clergyperson learns of child abuse or imminent harm to another person. A clergy-member who learns of child abuse or imminent harm should seek the help of an attorney experienced with these sorts of evidentiary matters and be sure to report the situation as required by law.

Experienced Legal Representation Protecting Your Rights As Members of the Clergy and the Rights of Your Parishioners

For sound, practical advice concerning confidential communications made between clergymen and communicants, contact the knowledgeable and professional Chicagoland non-profit attorneys at MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle, in Hoffman Estates at 847-310-0025, and in Des Plaines at 847-298-5030.

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