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The priest-penitent privilege arises not because statements are made to a clergyman. Rather, something more is needed. There must be reason to believe that the information sought required the disclosure of information under the cloak of the confessional or was in any way confidential, for it is only confidential communications made to a clergyman in his spiritual capacity which the law endeavors to protect.
Appellant was subpoenaed to appear and testify before a grand jury impaneled to investigate abuses and improprieties within the New York City Department of Correction with respect to preferential treatment accorded certain members of organized crime. Appellant was questioned about his contacts with various employees of the department. When asked about certain conversations he had with an inmate concerning the conditions of his incarceration, appellant refused to answer asserting the priest-penitent privilege. The trial court held that neither the existence of the privilege nor the assertion that to answer the questions would jeopardize appellant's free exercise of his ministry could shield appellant from his obligation to answer the grand jury questions. The appellate division affirmed the lower court's decision and appellant challenged the decision.
Could the appellant priest refuse to respond to the Grand Jury’s inquiries on the basis of the priest-penitent privilege or his right to the free exercise of his ministry?
The state supreme court affirmed the lower court's decision, and held that neither the existence of a priest-penitent privilege nor the assertion that to answer the questions would jeopardize the free exercise of the priest's ministry can shield him from his obligation to respond to the Grand Jury's inquiries since the priest-penitent privilege endeavored to protect only confidential communications made to a clergyman in his spiritual capacity and the questions which the priest was directed to answer did not jeopardize the atmosphere of confidence and trust which allegedly enveloped the relationship between the priest and the inmate, but rather the inquiries were directed to elicit from the priest efforts taken by him, independent of any conversations between the two, to secure the inmate's entrance into a work-release program. Additionally, a priest's right to practice his ministry cannot serve to shield him from shedding light upon whether or not any unlawful efforts were undertaken to assist those confined in New York City penal institutions to obtain special privileges; the statutory privilege afforded a priest any necessary protection against infringement of freedom of religion by Grand Jury investigations. The court concluded that state interest outweighed appellant's right to exercise freedom of religion.