How does a Protestant minister handle a confession of murder?
October 20, 2006 4:29 PM   Subscribe

A murder was confessed to me. I am a minister. What is my legal obligation: to report the crime to the authorities, or to maintain the confidentiality of the confession? This is not hypothetical.

The details: I was a volunteer leader at an out-of-state summer camp. After an evening sermon I preached, another adult volunteer, age 26, said he wanted to talk to me. This is his story:

Ten years earlier, when he was a junior in high school, he and his girlfriend befriended a homeless man that they only knew as Roy. Everyday after school they would pick Roy up and take him on his regular errands. One day when the confessor was sick, his girlfriend picked up Roy alone. He attacked and raped her. She called the confessor, a 6'8" jock, who found Roy and killed him in a fit of rage. This happened in a rural, country town. He loaded the body in his truck, dug a grave in a nondescript field, and buried Roy.

In the subsequent decade, no one came looking for the missing indigent. In the meantime, further tragedy: the girlfriend died in a car wreck shortly after graduation. The confessor turned to alcohol and then drugs, including cocaine, to deal with his feelings of guilt. I mention this because I have been a casual acquaintance of this person since before the event occured, and I knew of his struggles with substance abuse, and of his rehab and recovery. That part I can verify. I have no reason to doubt that the murder took place, though.

Other than a therapist, who considers this information completely confidential, he has told no one. I am torn. I pastor a Protestant, non-demoniational church. We do not consideral confession a sacrament, as a Catholic would, so there are no particular clerical obligations to uphold. Our polity is complete congregation autonomy: there is no supervising bishop or denomination headquarters to consult. Further, this person is not a member of my church, but he came to me, clearly, because he wanted to speak to a minister. I don't know if that is important or not. I am a minister, but not his minister. I am hesitant to bring this question to my friends in ministry, as most of them know this person and probably would be able to figure out of whom I am speaking. So, Mefites: any insight or guidance? Call the DA's office or forget about it, or something else?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (142 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
The seal of confession is enough of a cultural norm that most people believe it to be true in all cases, regardless of wheter or not a particular religion actually says its true. It may be difficult to keep this under wraps and sleep at night, but this individual most likely came to you with an expectation of privacy... and I feel it would be right to honor it, even though murder is clearly very, very wrong.
posted by fvox13 at 4:38 PM on October 20, 2006

I think if it were found out (which is unlikely) and it was known that you knew but hadn't told anyone, you couldn't be prosecuted because of confidentiality laws, the same as apply to the therapist. IANAL, so it could be wrong.

I know this doesn't exactly answer the question either, but I think if you did do nothing it would be nice to know that you have no legal obligation (check it out for yourself though, don't trust me).

As for moral obligation... that's a bit trickier. I don't think going to the police is the only avenue. You could talk to him. If he is seriously repentant, if he has had an awful few years and is now starting to get on track, then contacting the DA probably wouldn't be a helpful thing to do. Imprisoning him wouldn't improve his life, it wouldn't make the rest of us safer, it wouldn't appease any relatives of the victim (because it seems he has none). It also wouldn't deter your confessor from committing any more crimes, because he obviously isn't a murderer by nature and this was a once-off crime of passion. He isn't going to do this again.

Is he sorry for what he did? I'm guessing if he came to you it means that he is. I think you should help him to get his life straightened out, dedicate himself to worthy causes. You can't save the life that he took, but you can save his own life.
posted by twirlypen at 4:40 PM on October 20, 2006

Vigilante justice is no justice at all. While I would probably have done the same thing your confessor did, and still would, I would expect to be incarcerated. The fact that the dead man was an indigent and a rapist does not make him any less worthy of legal protection, and it does not make him any less worthy of facing a judge and jury in a real trial instead of a lone man and his rage. It is true that arresting, sentencing, and imprisoning the confessor will probably not save any lives. It may even ruin some. But that does not change the fact that we are a people governed by law. I'm sorry. He has put you in a terrible situation. But you know what is right.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:41 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

You have to tell the police.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:48 PM on October 20, 2006

Is there a way you could convince him, as his confidant, to take the initiative and turn himself in? He's put you in quite a bind.
posted by matildaben at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

(The following assumes you're in the US)

Your legal obligation, I think, is nil. This is primarily because a) you don't know for a fact that your confidant is telling the truth; b) because you haven't found the body (many states have laws requiring the reporting of human remains, although this is different than reporting a murder) and (most importantly) c) the crime has already been committed.

In the common law tradition, normal citizens generally do not have the legal obligation to undertake a positive act to stop something from happening. This is most commonly known as having "no duty to rescue" someone - if you see a drowning man, you don't have to save him. (Note that civil law countries, like France, are quite different, and have "Good Samaritan" laws like those the paparazzi following Princess Di were prosecuted under when they didn't help her after her crash). However, one of the few times a person has an obligation to act is when they know a crime is going to be committed - and even then, there is only a duty to report to the police. This obligation is usually limited to professionals. I don't know about ministers, but many classes of professionals, especially psychologists and lawyers, have a duty to report someone if they feel they are about to commit a serious crime (a crime that will seriously injure or kill someone). Therefore, if he told his lawyer he was going to kill Roy, his lawyer had a duty to tell the cops. However, since the deed is long since done, the obligation to report no longer exists on you (or anyone else).

Obviously, the moral considerations are quite different.
posted by thewittyname at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

I don't know what Jesus would do. But I do know that the legal system is imperfect. Are you in favour of the death penalty? Is this in place in the juristiction where this took place? I know you can't answer because you are anonymous, but it's something else to consider.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 4:52 PM on October 20, 2006

The question is about the poster's legal obligation. That's difficult to answer without knowing what jurisdiction the poster lives in. Some jurisdictions impose duties to report crimes in certain circumstances. Some make it illegal to disclose certain confidential communications. And some shield ministerial communications under privilege laws so the disclosures can't be used anyway.

I suspect the answer to your question is "neither" -- you are not required to report the crime or keep it confidential. You can do as your conscience and ministerial ethics suggest. But this is just a hunch and a definite answer depends on applicable law.

Maybe there a confidential church hotline that can answer questions like this? Or can you get advice from someone at another church in the same jurisdiction where they wouldn't know the person at issue?
posted by brain_drain at 4:53 PM on October 20, 2006

Well, I wouldn't forget about it. His confession, sacrosanct or no is serious. First I would contact your superior (human, not divine) (though I suppose you could try that as well), I am unclear as to the hierarchy of a Protestant non-denomination church, but make sure it doesn't violate some sacred trust that could get you into trouble.

Then I would contact the DA. Even if you don't directly report the person, you could let the know whatever details you have about where the body was buried. Let their investigations take it from there.

I feel bad for the guy, it's sounds like he has had a rough time, but there is a reason that there is no statute of limitations on murder. The person he killed may have been a vile rapist, but murder is murder.

And perhaps once all the evidence comes to light, the DA will take into account the intervening years and the assault that precipitated the crime.

You've been put into a tough position. I'm sorry for that.
posted by quin at 4:54 PM on October 20, 2006

In a vein similar to matildaben's: what if you convinced him to either turn himself in or to conduct some sort of extremely dramatic penance for the benefit of the common good?

This man owes a tremendous debt to society, but if he has truly reformed, perhaps he should repay it in a manner more powerful and beneficial to society than simply serving prison time.

However, if he makes this promise to give to society and does not fulfill it, you can't exactly run to the cops yourself and turn him in yourself. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Bear in mind that if you do decide to turn him in, it may be extremely difficult to actually prove this murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Turning him in may only unleash darkness within himself and not actually bring him to justice.

I wish you much luck and wisdom. This man has put you in an almost unbelievable bind.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:57 PM on October 20, 2006

Tell the police. Why should this guy get a pass?

Don't therapists have to tell the police if they know someone's committed a crime? (Granted, my research only extends to Gross Pointe Blank, but I've seen it many times.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

As an atheist I'm in the peculiar situation of saying that you are asking the wrong people. Isn't this something you should take up with God?

Or if not that, then perhaps a church bishop? Or another minister in your same church, someone you respect?

I think the legal question here is unimportant. The moral question is what's critical, and we cannot help you with that.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

First of all, you don't have any legal obligation to tell anyone.

Secondly despite your religious beliefs, I don't think you would be required to testify against him in court, just as if you were a catholic. This guy is 26 years old, why ruin his life? Just because he killed someone? You know he feels bad about it, and so he probably won't do something like that again. Besides, the guy he murdered was pretty terrible anyway, I mean they were being nice to him and he turned around and raped the girl. I'm not saying it was justifiable, but in this specific situation I'm not sure I really care about putting the guy away.

Also, even if you do tell the police, they may not ever be able to get a conviction unless they find a body. And then he would be pretty pissed at you for betraying his trust (plus he's a murderer, not the kind of person you want to be pissed at you)

It's not your responsibility to turn this guy, and from what I understand about Christianity, forgiveness is pretty important.
posted by delmoi at 4:59 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

You have said it yourself:
We do not consideral confession a sacrament, as a Catholic would, so there are no particular clerical obligations to uphold.
There are several things to consider:
  • Given that your church does not consider confession a sacrament, you may not be protected by the "normal" confessor-confessee privilege.
  • This man killed another human being. As Optimus Chyme so eloquently put it upthread, we are a nation governed by laws. He must face the legal consequences of his actions.
  • You are not responsible for bringing him to justice, but you have an ethical and moral obligation to inform the police. An investigation must be conducted: you know only his side of the story. You have no way of knowing whether some or all of his story is fabricated.
  • Do not let your completely understandable and entirely human desire to empathise with a very troubled and very conflicted human being blind you to your moral and ethical obligations.

posted by scrump at 4:59 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Keep it to yourself. He wouldn't have put his trust in you if he thought you were going to tell. What's done is done.
posted by matkline at 5:00 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

He murdered a rapist.
Did he? Was he?

The OP has no way of knowing whether this information is true or not. In fact, the only way to obtain confirmation would be disinterment of the remains.
posted by scrump at 5:00 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think the minister should do his own investigation into whether this is true, and if confirmed direct the confidant to turn himself in.
posted by cellphone at 5:04 PM on October 20, 2006

Legally, it's hearsay and inadmissable.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:12 PM on October 20, 2006

I agree with twirlypen whole-heartedly.

You are obviously a thinking, feeling, human being and as such, probably see the nuances beyond just having him locked up. Your counsel might include him turning himself in the sense that it may help him deal with his inner turmoil despite the obvious implications of losing his freedom. Perhaps though it would be better to suggest personal atonement in the form of him dedicating his time towards aiding those in society who are even worse off than he is/has been; it could even be an adjunct to his own path of recovery.

IMHO, our system of incarceration need to be about rehabilitation and atonement. Since it is not, and you are in a position to help guide this person to a better place in his life, I can't see how turning him in will do any good at all. All in all I would leave it up to him, while supporting him in his decision and suggesting constructive options for him to heal his pain and repay his debt to society. I also feel that if you betray his trust in you that it could be a huge blow to him and two lives may be lost, whether he goes to prison for it or not.

I think either way you will find yourself in a position of doubting whichever option you choose. Perhaps you can find a qualified and completely confidential person who you can confide in and get counsel from yourself so that you won't end up wracked with guilt with no outlet. This is a tough one, I wish you the best.
posted by a_green_man at 5:12 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

In the movie version of the story, the confessor talks to the cleric, the cleric lays out the moral problem as one of a pentitent who truly desires forgiveness, and recognizes that he (the confessor) can't claim to the God he believes in that he is truly sorry for his sins, unless he has done what he can to bring his crime to the bar of justice, and then the confessor and the cleric walk arm in arm into a police station, where the confessor tells his story, and is relieved of his burden of guilt, and gets a fair trial, and does short, easy time on account of the girl that was wronged being avenged in a moment of rage.

Some of that might be relevant here, but you are not making a movie. You have to work within the bounds of your obligations as an ordained minister, if you were acting as a minister in hearing the confession, which, given the surroundings of a faith camp at which you were a leader, and the fact that the confession occurred immediately following a religious service at which you officiated, might well have been reasonably inferred by the confessor, even if he was not a member of your usual congregation. Some sects have formal policies about such situations, which might be of some guidance; but I don't think you'll find anything on the Internet, including here in AskMe, of sufficient specificity to guide you in what is, after all, another human beings life decisions, and moral debacle.

But there are also matters of jurisdiction involved. The duties and protections of ordination do vary from one locale to another. You need some advice, and I am surprised that there is not someone at your seminary, or in your faith organization to whom you cannot turn for professional guidance and judgement. I would certianly urge you to go that route, immediately, for ethical guidance from the tenets of your faith. But I think you may also need to clarify your position with an attorney familiar with the laws of the jurisdiction within which you minister, and of the jurisdiction in which the confession took place.

Once you are clear in your own mind about your own responsibilities and obligations in the situation, you do, I think, have a positive duty to pursue this with the confessor. Your church may not have a doctrine of intercession of the clergy, but the confessor would not have confessed if he were not looking for assistance with his burden. And in a situation of this magnitude, that, to me, is graver than just the verbal unburdening he has made to you, already.
posted by paulsc at 5:13 PM on October 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

The Ethical and Legal thing to do is Call a Lawyer. Whether your conversation with the confessor may or may not be protected by Privilege, your communication with a lawyer definitely Is. Therapists often keep a lawyer on retainer for help with these kinds of situations. To avoid any kind of retribution by the government or by the confessor, having sound legal counsel is the best way to go.

Good luck to you.
posted by mynameismandab at 5:14 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ask him if he wants to turn himself in. If not, forget about it. Too many people are approaching this from a fairness angle. Life isn't fair, especially for your confessor. I don't see what religion has to do with this; he was just confiding in you at the most convenient location. You want to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution for the people that are still alive. The legal system will not make anything better for anyone.
posted by aye at 5:16 PM on October 20, 2006

He probably came to you believing that you are required to keep his confession to yourself. Obviously, you are not, but it is still a good idea for you, as a minister, not to breach confidences in general. If you considered this man a danger to others, I would certainly suggest that you call the authorities. If an innocent man was in jail because he was found guilty of killing the homeless man, I would suggest the same thing. However, if reporting the crime will help no one other than the cause of justice, I would keep quiet. It is not that justice is unimportant - it most certainly is - but so are other things. If you report this man and your congregation finds out, some of them may be less likely to confide in you in the future. And perhaps one of those future confessions that you would not hear is a confession that will enable you to - perhaps by calling the authorities then - prevent harm from coming to someone.
posted by spira at 5:17 PM on October 20, 2006

(is delmoi joking? i seriously can't tell)

The classic answer, for the catholic priest as well, is to convince the confessor that he must pay the penalty for his crime. If he confesses to someone, he clearly still has a conscience about it, and has some need of dealing with it. I imagine the therapist is also trying to help him work that out. But given that you have no direct evidence of any of it, I think your only real obligation is to the confessor, who needs to face his action and understand its full implications directly, which means turning himself in.

The only part that has me torn is how fucked up the american prison system is, and the fact that instead of rehabilitating him it is all too likely to have long term negative impact. But if he can be convinced to use his sentence as time to work on something - write about his actions or somehow deal with the reality of what he did, and/or maybe complete a degree/learn a skill, etc - then perhaps he can avoid its soul crushing tendency. But committing murder shouldn't be something one can just shrug off, and if you're a religious person, that must be something you can convey to this man.
posted by mdn at 5:20 PM on October 20, 2006

It sounds like this person has no desire to (and so I'm supposing probably wouldn't) do this sort of thing again. It sounds like a crime of passion. It sounds like his punishment has been automatic and will be lifelong. Is jail the answer to his problems? Talk to him.

You have no way of knowing whether some or all of his story is fabricated.

^ That is an important point though. Talk to him.
posted by 6am at 5:20 PM on October 20, 2006

I'm surprised how many people say you should let it go. He's a murderer. How is that ever ok? Unless it was in self-defense, I don't see how anyone can say you should just let it go. For example, delmoi wrote: This guy is 26 years old, why ruin his life? Just because he killed someone?

"Just because he killed someone?"

No matter how many times I read this phrase, it just sounds outrageous. He killed someone. He should be punished. Premeditated murder is not OK, ever.

Call a lawyer, get their advice. I'm guessing that without a body or confession, you reporting the information wouldn't actually get him sent to prison anyway but at least you have some legal guidance.
posted by chairface at 5:35 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

This guy is 26 years old, why ruin his life? Just because he killed someone?

Uh, yes. Just because he killed someone. Are you serious?

It sounds like this person has no desire to (and so I'm supposing probably wouldn't) do this sort of thing again.

You're OK with letting someone go unpunished for murder as long as they won't do it again? Really?

The poster is not a priest, there is no legal or moral expectation of confidentiality, he's just a guy some other guy told about a crime. He should tell the police; let them investigate. That's their job.
posted by languagehat at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

All killings are not equal. If you kill Mary Poppins you will get one treatment from the police, the prosecutors, the judge and the jury. Hannibal Lecter, totally different. In the southern United States almost everybody has a relative who got "a year and a day" sentence for a cold-blooded murder.

I don't think many people would think this particular instance is much of a biggie. Indigent? Rapist? I doubt the police would even look very hard for a body.
posted by bukvich at 5:38 PM on October 20, 2006

I would try to convince him to confess, and, if he refuses, turn him in. Scrump has it: we are a nation of laws. If you feel conflicted, remember Matthew 22:21: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." I am not a priest or a biblical scholar, but this says to me that Jesus recognized that the laws of the state--if reasonable and just--should be respected.

Remember, too, that the system is set up to allow prosecutors, judges, and juries vast leeway in the consideration of individual circumstances. Good person or not, troubled soul or not, this guy committed a serious crime--he beat another human being to death. If the circumstances surrounding the crime add up to exuse him from being punished, then so be it. If not, then so be it, too. But this isn't your decision.

Something else to consider: what if the story is just a fantasy in the confessor's head? It certainly is possible, and, if so, signals that he might be a danger to society. What if it is a fantasy and he goes on to actually kill somebody, or, if it was true, kills again? Could you live with your decision to not turn him in?
posted by jtfowl0 at 5:52 PM on October 20, 2006

I don't think you have any ethical obligation to go to the police. I don't think the man was justified in what he did. But what would be gained by punishing him? Punishing people has a couple goals. One is to remove dangerous people from society to limit the damage they can do, do you think this man is a danger to society? Another is to provide consequences to disuade people from taking actions counter to what society would prefer. Do you think having this man incarcerated would end up preventing any violence on the part of others in the future? The final good reason for punishment is to provide victims with an illusion of justice. There is no one to comfort here.

Telling the authorities will hurt the man that confessed to you. The question I would ask myself is; for what ideal, for what ends, is it worth looking away a man for years of his life? For what ideal is it worth so harming the man that trusted you?
posted by I Foody at 5:52 PM on October 20, 2006

You should call the police. They may do nothing, but you will at least have done the right thing.

This man is a murderer, and nobody deserves to get away with murder. The man he killed may have been a rapist, but that does not justify what he did. Even if nobody came looking for Roy, that doesn't mean he had no family at all anywhere, so somebody else may have been hurt by his death.
posted by cerebus19 at 5:52 PM on October 20, 2006

(I am a lawyer, but I do not represent you and this is not legal advice.)

First, the confession would not be inadmissible hearsay. One exception to the hearsay rule is for statements against the declarant's interest; this is one example. People are convicted on the basis of confessions all the time.

Second, in most jurisdictions in the United States you have no obligation to report a crime that has already been convicted unless you have reason to believe that someone is in danger or the crime is continuing. (Or in certain special cases, such as a doctor who suspects child abuse.) I am 98% certain you are under no obligation in this case. But without knowing where you are, it is impossible to say for certain.

Third, pretty much everywhere there is a legal privilege that applies to confidential information exchanged between a clergyman and [word here for person who goes to a clergyman]. It is likely that his confession to you would be privileged for this reason, and so there would probably be no real evidence against him. But the precise scope of the privilege varies substantially by jurisdiction, and relevant factors might include whether he was coming to you in your capacity as a friend or as a spiritual advisor.
posted by raf at 5:53 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

Anonymous needs to consult a lawyer, not AskMetafilter. Since a reference is made to an "out of state" summer camp, I'm assuming anonymous is in the United States. Rules regarding clergy-penitent privilege vary wildly from state to state; in some states the privilege is held by the clergy, and in other states, the privilege is held by the penitent, and in others, it may be held by both. Until the privilege question is resolved, it is unclear whether or not any of the information is admissible in court.

Please don't take any advice from us- talk to a criminal defense lawyer instead.
posted by ambrosia at 5:54 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do you really want the correct answer to the question "What is my legal obligation?"? One of the answers above might be said correct answer. Who knows? An attorney admitted to the bar in your jusidiction, that's who. You need to hire a lawyer and get a professional opinion. That converstion will be confidential.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:56 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is very easy.

You must not report this to anyone, ever. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute. You must not reveal this to the police, ever, under any circumstances whatosever, even if this means serving time in jail yourself for contempt of court (though the odds of this are vanishingly unlikely).

You write that you are not his minister. In a sense this is true, since you are not his but Christ's minister to the people. But when someone comes to you and confesses, you are his minister at that time whether or not he is a faithful member or your church or not, and no matter your own denomination's particular views of confession.

If you are not willing to live with the moral absolutism of the secrecy of a confession, you should in the future quickly and clearly state to someone who seems to be starting to confess to you that you cannot hear confessions, and walk away. Really, this is what you should have done here. You did not do that in this case. When you stood there, hearing his confession, you were his minister hearing his confession and he was your flock. You accepted the responsibilities of a confession by the act of hearing his. There can be no other way to see this.

The only circumstance where you might conceivably consider violating the secrecy of a "confession" would be if the confessor was confessing his intent to commit some crime in the future. This is not the case here.

If you feel bad about this, I would suggest talking to a Catholic or other liturgical minister who has heard confessions before about how they deal with this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:58 PM on October 20, 2006 [13 favorites]

More to the point: your legal obligation is now irrelevant. Your moral obligation is to protect the secrecy of the confession that was given to you, even if this means you must endure some legal punishment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:59 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think another aspect of the moral question that I'd like to pose to all those saying that 100% he has to be turned in, "murder is murder", etc. what are your thoughts on war and military personel and the fact that many of them kill people regularly and then come home and are totally free in our society? What makes ones life so worthless that it no longer considered worthy of protection? and beyond that, think not just about military combatants, but "collateral damage" as well.

Personally I'm torn on what I would do or what advice i would give, so i'm not trying to be snarky either way, but this aspect really interests me.
posted by teishu at 6:00 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

I bet that Roy never raped anyone again after old boy killed him.

Will he kill again? The guy feels tremendous guilt, and has told you and his therapist. He's paid for it in many ways including abusing his own body and soul. He's not likely to reoffend, considering how much he's punished himself so far.

Plus, if you turn him in, you're violating an implicit trust. As a minister and a shepherd, do you want your flock to be able to come to you for spiritual help when they've sinned, or not? How trustworthy are you when you're sitting there in court to put someone who trusted you to minister to him in a jail cell for a long, long time?

Murderers are rarely recidivist, especially when the murder was a crime of passion. And most especially when the murderer regrets it to this degree. This guy isn't gonna do it again. He's not gonna turn into some serial killer. Make sure he's right with your mutual God, and let it go.
posted by evariste at 6:03 PM on October 20, 2006

If you are in Washington State in the US a law was passed a few years ago commonly referred to as the "Becca Bill" which does require priests to report certain things heard in confessional. Might want to check if this is covered. Failure to do so (if its covered) is a misdemeanor.
posted by Riemann at 6:03 PM on October 20, 2006

teishu: many of them kill people regularly and then come home and are totally free in our society

I find this perfectly logical. Executioners are free in our society as well. That's because society deputed them to kill on its behalf. Same for soldiers.
posted by evariste at 6:04 PM on October 20, 2006

That part I can verify. I have no reason to doubt that the murder took place, though.

I believe it is in these words were you are on the right track. However, logically, I cannot see the law merely requiring a standing of "no reason to doubt" when it comes to reporting a crime. If it does, I would say that penalties are likely to be minimal. Consider that somebody came on Ask Metafilter and confessed to a murder. Are all of those Mefites who read his post, obliged legally to report the poster merely because there is "no reason to doubt" the poster's authenticity? It seems very unlikely.

If there is a legal standard, I would guess that it would be AT LEAST "had good cause to believe" and possibly "had evidence compelling enough to not question the guilt".

Consider the professor who first disclosed the John Mark Karr confession. Not all confessions should be believed nor required to be reported without some corroborating evidence.

I am not a lawyer and this is not advice. This is merely my "instinct".
posted by zaebiz at 6:05 PM on October 20, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe has it exactly right.
posted by evariste at 6:05 PM on October 20, 2006

I'm with the delmoi on this, sort of. You should offer him guidance in this, not turn him in. In fact, out of all of the things you could do, turning the Confessor in will have the least positive benefit.

Stipulating that the Confessor doesn't currently suffer from delusions or pathological lying, and that his version of the tale roughly matches the course of actual events, I don't think that he stands any threat to society in the future. If they'd been married, there're probably states that would have viewed as justifiable homicide just a few years ago.

Truth be told, I applaud the Confessor's actions. If I were on the jury, I would argue that he had just cause to lay waste to this asshole. He did exactly what I would imagine doing in this situation, and I like a world in which people resoond as he did. ("Vigilante justice" seems a radically different concept than killing your girlfriend's rapist, having more to do with lynch mobs and uncontrolled rabble in the street chasing whichever way their whimsy takes them.)

Even if the course of events went nothing like he described them, and he acted out a sick sexual perversion by killed the homeless fellow, he's not going to get convicted. The DA will never find the witnesses, since there apparently weren't any witnesses (nobody called the cops; there was no investigation). Physical evidence might be there, true.

But, it seems like he probably wouldn't confess a murder if it didn't go down at least approximately like he said it would.

This man needs help, not ten years in prison. He's been living his punishment. Even the girl for whom he killed has died. How's that for divine retribution? It seems the Extremely Large One has marked this guy about as well as He did Cain

Or, if he's a liar pathological enough to confess this sort of stuff, he also needs help.

Turning him in to the cops will only insure that his life gets worse. Prison isn't about atoning for crimes.
posted by Netzapper at 6:06 PM on October 20, 2006

You must speak to your own lawyer. Depending on the jurisdiction, and interpretation of the law, you are potentially liable for misprision of felony (concealment), which carries its own prison sentence of up to 3 years (or $500 fine). Relevant portion of the US Code. Only a lawyer who, bound by lawyer/client confidentiality, is informed of all the facts of the case, can make sure you are protected from legal consequences.
Get a lawyer -- your own, NOT your church's lawyer. Before you tell him/her anything potentially incriminating, make sure you have a signed representation agreement.
My reading of the situation is that you may or may not have the confessional privilege, depending on specifics of the local statute, and interpretation of whether this person approached you in your capacity as a minister or your capacity as a friend and adviser. But that's a lot of room for interpretation, and it's your ass on the line. So I repeat, get yourself to a lawyer.
posted by katemonster at 6:08 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

IANAL. You should consult one.

There are numerous responses saying basically, 'obviously you do legally have to tell the police' or 'obviously you don't have to tell the police.' I don't see any of them citing any source. Consult a lawyer. They will know the laws of your jurisdiction.

Next, you should consult with someone from your denomination that deals with this sort of issue to seek moral guidance and to see if your denomination has any specific guidelines regarding this issue.

And of course you need to continue talking to the confessor. Personally I think you should try to convince them to confess. Whether you have any sort of moral/legal obligation to report him you will have to sort out on your own. And of course, as others have stated, you need to make sure this story is not fabricated.

On another note. I'm with chairface. "Just because he killed someone" seems a very nonsensical thing to say to me. A murder is not just a murder, even if the victim is an indigent rapist apparently with no family. The man probably has someone somewhere that cares that he just disappeared off the face of the planet at some point. He deserves justice. Could the confessors life be ruined by being thrown in jail? Yes. But as jtfowl0 points out, our justice system has its flaws, but it is not fucked beyond the point that it should be disregarded.

Best of luck.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:12 PM on October 20, 2006

having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony

As I mentioned above, this is almost certainly going to come down to the required legal standard of "having knowledge". If you confessed to a murder right now in this thread, are we all going to go to jail for 3 years if we don't report you?
posted by zaebiz at 6:13 PM on October 20, 2006

This is a state specific question. First, determine what you want to do. Then decide if you should do it. Finally, consult a lawyer to see if it is possible. I'm not sure if the privilege belongs to the confessor or the confesee. May depend on the state. If it belongs to the confessee, then your statement cannot be used in court against the person.

You have a lot of thinking to do. Perhaps you should go to confession yourself.

I am a lawyer. However, this is not legal advice.

I personally would not turn the person in.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:14 PM on October 20, 2006

I don’t think that the only options are “Go to the police and seek prosecution” or “let the guy go scot-free.” True justice is very rarely achieved within the American legal system and-- in this case in particular-- I think the courts have few just remedies to offer.

I volunteer in a prison and can say without hesitation that there is nothing good going on in there. Plus, I think that saying that anyone who’s taken a life can “pay their debt” by twiddling their thumbs in prison for a few years cheapens the life of the victim. I, for one, hope that my own life is “worth” more than twenty years in prison. Besides, it seems to me that conviction (or even prosecution) is unlikely, given that your testimony would probably not be usable for a number of reasons, there are no witnesses, and any physical evidence is probably gone.

Still, I don’t think that the crime can go completely overlooked. My initial impulse, though, was to side with the people who argued in favor of letting the guy get on with his life. But then I realized that, by saying that that this crime was less worthy of being reported because the victim was himself a perpetrator and has no one to speak for him, I was essentially saying that some people’s lives are more important than others’. Would your answer different, I asked myself, if the deceased were a blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl like Elizabeth Smart? It shouldn’t be. Whether he was a Nobel laureate or a rapist, a hedge fund manager or a homeless person, the mayor of the city or a friendless individual, his life was worth something. Every life has value.

So, yes, a debt needs to be paid and no, it probably can’t (or shouldn’t) be paid through the legal system. The solution, I think, is to use your authority as a religious leader to encourage this young man to atone for his crime in some way. Volunteering for a homeless shelter might be a good start. But I think it should be impressed upon him that his is a large debt. In my state, his prison sentence would have been something like 10 years. 10 years is 87,600 hours-- he should plan on providing at least that much community service over the rest of his life.
posted by chickletworks at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Ethical and Legal thing to do is Call a Lawyer.

No question or hesitation. Call a lawyer Monday. You absolutely cannot make an informed decision about this without accurate legal advice from someone licensed where you live.
posted by mediareport at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2006

This guy isn't gonna do it again. He's not gonna turn into some serial killer.

Are you sure of that? You say that most people who commit crimes of passion like this don't repeat. What about the ones who do? How can you tell who is who?

Ultimately, who is better equipped to make this decision--one private citizen or the criminal justice system, with its judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, psychologists, AND jury of 12 private citizens who can consider things objectively?

Finally, as a point of clarification, did the confessor mean to beat the guy to death, or did he beat him and accidentally kill him? If the latter, we are probably talking about manslaughter, not murder.
posted by jtfowl0 at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2006

Just to raise the question -

One of the administrators on metafilter had to receive this post in order to strip the identifying info and post it as anonymous. Does that mean that the metafilter administrator who in theory does know the identity of the OP, is now placed in the same moral bind as the OP?

The webmaster knows the identity of a guy, who knows the identity of a guy who committed an unsolved murder. Is that a problem?

In essence, did the OP just pass the moral buck? If so, is it worsened by the fact that webmasters are afforded no special confidentiality privileges? (that I'm aware of)

Just a theoretical question. By all means do I completely empathize with the OP.
posted by jlowen at 6:19 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

In many places, murder, especially aggravated premeditated murder ("murder one") such as you describe, has no statute of limitations. That means that if you disclosed this information to the D.A., even at this late date, the murderer might be successfully prosecuted.

You were not an accomplice to the murder, since you were not present; you were not an accessory after the fact, because you did not, as Learned Hand put it in 1949, involve yourself in this venture in such a way as to bring it about or to make it succeed.

As far as I can tell, the major concern you face is whether or not you can be compelled to disclose what you know to the authorities. If a policeman were to ask you today to tell him everything that you know about this murder, you could certainly do so without liability for the consequences, as long as you stuck to the truth. But could you refuse? If you were a private citizen, you could not, on the grounds that it would be considered obstruction of justice.

The question of whether you, however, can be compelled to disclose is not, as some have erroneously stated above, clearly the same as if you were a "normal citizen." Along with doctor/patient privilege and attorney/client privilege, there exists priest-penitent privilege, also called clergy privilege, which in some jurisdictions places a bright-line distinction between priest-penitent communications and other communications.

It's not clear to me whether the particular requirements and standards of your denomination could influence your coverage under that statute (if any). If someone tried to compel you to disclose, i.e. by subpoena, my guess is that you and your lawyer would probably have to have it out in court.

Do you have a duty to disclose? That really depends on the jurisdiction. For instance, in the jurisdiction where I practice medicine, I have the duty to report many things, including the presence of some infectious diseases. As a licensed physician in New York State, I have the duty to report even the suspicion of child abuse. If I do not report, I can be held criminally and civilly liable for the consequences of this omission. These duties are specifically enumerated in law to trump any protections that would otherwise be afforded under doctor-patient privilege, although as far as I know that hasn't been tested in court.

It's not clear to me what the legal consequences of failing to disclose in your case could be, but they matter. What could you be held liable for in the future? Hypothetically, if your confessor committed suicide or another murder, and somehow it was discovered that you knew about his prior crimes, an attempt might be made to hold you liable for his actions. In this case, the laws of your particular jurisdiction really matter, as well as the circumstances of the case.

Could you be held liable for events proceeding from disclosing everything you know to the D.A.? I'm not sure, but I don't think so, as long as you did it in good faith. Privilege is an option, not a mandate; reporting crimes to the authorities is never against the law.

Should you disclose? I can't help you with that question.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:24 PM on October 20, 2006

You're OK with letting someone go unpunished for murder as long as they won't do it again? Really?

If they geniunely regret it ever happened, if it is clear that the crime is a one-off, if you knew they actually wouldn't do it again...yes actually. Someone who is at real risk of reoffending is a different issue - this person certainly doesn't sound like that. I have no doubt that every single person on metafilter is capable of murdering someone given the right buttons getting pushed at the right time.

I see absolutely no fundamental moral difference between killing a person and killing a fly. You've never killed anything before?
posted by 6am at 6:28 PM on October 20, 2006

teishu: many of them kill people regularly and then come home and are totally free in our society

evariste: I find this perfectly logical. Executioners are free in our society as well. That's because society deputed them to kill on its behalf. Same for soldiers.

what "society" exactly deputized them? i just mean, as a member of this society, i certainly am not supportive of the death penalty, so there is at least some level of dissent here. as is evidenced in this thread, there are people with views on both sides of if this killing was morally acceptable, so where and why is the line drawn where it is?

also, I'm not speaking in a legal sence, just 100% the moral sence. when is killing justified morally? what makes one a "murder" and one an "execution" (in the moral sence, clearly there is a legal definition, but i think we all know that the law is far from a moral authority)
posted by teishu at 6:34 PM on October 20, 2006

The last thing that occurs to me is that you should not count on this remaining confidential for very long. Already you can be certain that at least 3 people know all the details, and one of those three people is starting to make a habit of disclosing the details to others. From my knowledge of human psychology, I'd guess that he won't stop there.

Furthermore, you've provided a lot of identifying biographical information just from this post. The person is a 26 year old man, he was a counselor at a Christian summer camp, he is 6'8", and in 1996 at the age of 16, when he was an athlete in his junior year of high school, he murdered a homeless man named Roy who was living in his rural country town. Thereafter his girlfriend died, he had problems with drug and alcohol abuse,

I wouldn't be surprised if someone who reads this post identifies him - people 80 inches tall make up a tiny fraction of the population! You've been quite irresponsible.

So anyway, I think you should be prepared for the eventuality that this might not remain secret much longer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:39 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

It is not that justice is unimportant - it most certainly is - but so are other things.

Justice is not an abstract concept that can be set aside for the sake of the interests of the persons involved because it is all about the interests of the persons involved — all of them. It refers to the state of equity that we ideally should aim to achieve with our actions - both those in and outside of the law.

I know I couldn't turn this young man in. I wouldn't claim I was serving justice by not doing so — but neither would I feel that I'd be serving justice by going to the police.
posted by orange swan at 6:47 PM on October 20, 2006

I would not turn him in he does not seem to be a danger to society and although some would disagree it seemed to be justified, no reason for him to rot in jail for something that the guy deserved anyway. He obviously is showing remorse and told you this in strict confidence.
posted by tke248 at 6:51 PM on October 20, 2006

Girl is raped. Boyfriend kills rapist. Girlfriend is now deceased. I think that's enough for this guy. If you turn him in now, he'll have not a soul to back up his story and that will make him a murderer as opposed to an enraged loved one.

I can't/won't condone his action, but if the story is true, it's too late to be of help one way or the other. Leave this one alone.
posted by snsranch at 6:55 PM on October 20, 2006

raf's got some good information above.

To me the story sounds a bit "off" re killing the homeless-guy-turned-rapist. I suppose it's possible but it could also be too much Law & Order/Cold Case.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:00 PM on October 20, 2006

Don't turn him in.
posted by rbs at 7:00 PM on October 20, 2006

What will bring him the most peace? Ask yourself this question. Ask him.

Here's what I say: He needs to pay the debt to society and do his jail time. He will be more at peace with that out of the way. He also needs to give His life fully to Jesus Christ, and do whatever he can in this life to earn credit with God and make a better afterlife. You need to tell him this. Advise him to turn himself in, let him do it himself. It will look better on him.
posted by dropkick at 7:11 PM on October 20, 2006

I kinda skimmed through the answers so apologies if this is repetitive. ROU_Xenophobe, a serious question, you seem to believe your assertion passionately but can you provide an objective authority that ministers participating in confessions are bound to secrecy? I'm not saying that I assert this is not so, but I am not sure it is a biblical (or otherwise authoritative) assertion, and I'm genuinely curious what your belief is based on.

It does not seem to be getting talked about that it is entirely possible that this person will deny this murder and if he were to do so it is possible (and I would argue probable) that he would get off. There's no way they'll find the body and although some people in the town may remember the homeless person, there's probably not even any objective proof that he even existed. Also, this person was around 16 when the alleged murder took place, I can't begin to guess what that might mean legally. A likely result of reporting this confession to the authorities is the individual is aware that you made his confession known to the authorities, possibly his family and acquaintences find out something about the allegations due to being questioned, all resulting in no conviction, perhaps no trial.

This is a pragmatic consideration rather than an ethical or legal one but I would sure as hell be thinking about it if I were in your position. If you decide to report this, should you inform him first of your intentions? Encourage him to turn himself in, perhaps by some prearrangement, perhaps with his therapist's support? Should you consider protecting yourself if he winds up accused but free? I really don't know, but you need to think about these very real questions, at least as much as the ethical ones.

Finally, as the responses indicate there is more than one question here: there is a legal one, and then there is a ethical/moral/religious/ministerial one, split that up any way you want to. Particularly if you decide to report this you need to talk to a lawyer about the first one. You might need to talk to an authority of your church about the denominational and ministerial aspects of the latter one, nobody here has anything other than their opinion about that, and they're a pretty heathenish lot about here, what's more. As far as the ethical, moral, and religion-as-in-how-you-interpret-your-own-spiritual-path-and-obligation,
I think you're on your own there. Frankly I think this is too tough a nut for Ask Metafilter. You need some professional guidance of at least a couple varieties.
posted by nanojath at 7:13 PM on October 20, 2006

Two lives ended that day, not one. Possibly a third, if the car crash was fueled by intoxication from guilt. You might be able to save one of those lives.

It sounds to me like that man does need some kind of atonement, but I think the police version would be likely draconian and excessive. With the 'tough on crime' bullshit going on, if he goes into that system, he may not come back for a long, long time. It's obvious this guy is very human and is suffering; being penned in a cage for a decade or two, and treated like an animal, is not likely to do him any good. (or, for that matter, the people who guard him, but that's separate issue.)

He may need to atone somehow, perhaps something deep and difficult, taking years. But that atonement doesn't have to be behind bars. Or, if you truly don't feel the crime was that terrible, he might simply need you to call him and tell him you forgive him for what he did. (I suggest not being very clear about what it was on the telephone, since EVERYTHING is being listened to these days.) I think, given his destructive behavior, he needs more than a statement of forgiveness, but that's a call you'll need to make. You say his therapist knows... maybe you should all have a three-way meeting and just talk this thing out?

I'm sorry you've been put in such a hard position, but this is the kind of thing you signed up for when you became a minister. I hope you can find a solution that can bring your confessor back into the world of the living. Jail is extremely unlikely to do that.
posted by Malor at 7:19 PM on October 20, 2006

We have a lot of non-lawyers offering legal advice here, and it is all over the map, much of it just wrong. Even the lawyers are struggling because you did not give your jurisdiction. Consult with a local criminal lawyer on this matter. It won't cost much and it will be money well spent. A criminal law professor at a local law school or some other types might even dispense advice for free given your position. Someone suggested a written letter, that is to provide evidence that there is an attorney/clientl relationship binding the lawyer to confidentiality. You are protected either way; paper evidence is just a little something extra, which can be helpful if your relationship with the lawyer appears casual rather than professional. Ask the lawyer what you need.

My heart goes out to you. This is an incredibly difficult position you find yourself in. I am praying that you will find strength in God, and strength in your heart to assist you in this complex problem.
posted by caddis at 7:25 PM on October 20, 2006

I don't know if you should turn this kid in for killing someone else. I don't know if he should confess. But it seems that someone should tell someone where Roy's remains are.

Who knows why Roy did what he did? Maybe he was a psychopath, maybe he was a schizophrenic, maybe he was a misogenist asshole who seized upon an unfortunate opportunity. But odds are good that he came from somewhere, and that someone's heart is broken because of his disappearance.

Somewhere, there is a mother or father, sister or brother, son or daughter, former lover, who lost is or her former deadbeat son, brother, father, lover a decade ago, and is wondering what happened to the dissapointing, homeless, poor, violent person that he or she loved.

Nobody deserves that agony. Roy's family deserves to know what happened to him.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:25 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

The setup is extremely, extremely hard for me to believe. You went through seminary, and were ordained, and the whole time nobody ever talked to you about the giant issue of clergy confidentiality?

No, you cannot ethically tell the police. You say you know he came to you because you were a minister, not because he knew you. You realize you were serving in that capacity to him. He came to you privately looking for forgiveness. Unless clearly otherwise stated, that is a completely confidential relationship.

Many ministers do say, when talks are getting heavy, "I want to help you, and you know, if you disclose something illegal, morally I have to help you even if that means telling others." You didn't. In the absence of that disclaimer, he expected confidentiality, and the relationship is such that you absolutely must keep it confidential.

The only way you could still legitimately consider telling someone is if he were telling you about future illegal plans. That's clearly not the case.

Even if you live in a state where, legally, you should disclose this information, you are still morally and ethically obligated not to do so.

I am extremely surprised, very nearly shocked, that you need to consider this at all. Yes, it's heavy and scary; that's what being a religious authority is all about.

I agree that what he did was very wrong, and that he should not be treated differently from other murderers, but clergy confidentiality trumps those concerns easily. By all means, try to convince him to make a clean breast of it with the authorities -- that's what would happen if you were being played by Bing Crosby -- but realize that he may never admit it to the police. You have to accept that, just like his therapist does; his confession is so confidential that it's as if he hasn't told anyone.

If you want to talk, please, set up an anonymous Gmail account and send something to the address in my profile. I will also be coming from a Protestant perspective.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:34 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't think within the context of what would society do, or what would another minister do, but rather think about this problem in terms of do you want this man to be punished for something he did in a fit of rage ten years ago.
posted by pwally at 7:50 PM on October 20, 2006

Well, reaslistically, this is defintely a mefi train wreck.

What should you do?

He came to you and confessed. So, go back to him and saying you've thought it over, he needs to do pennance.

Realistically, treat it as confession.

He has a job now:
The job is to clean up, sober up, behave as a proper member of society. He needs to anonymously call in where the body is.

Because, he certainly doesn't want you to confront his sins further.

He came to you in the guise of safety and privacy. Who are you to ignore that? And the bit about where he's not part of your flock?

C'mon - either you believe (to some degree) they're all your responsiblity (people) as a minister, or none of them are. You don't get to choose which ones are and which ones aren't.

And you don't get to judge either. That's G-d's job, right?

If this ever did get to trial - it's possible that he'd go through (even more) hell, only to get acquitted (girl's dead, rape, his age, which was under age at that.)

You have a chance to help him live a good life. Do so.
posted by filmgeek at 7:50 PM on October 20, 2006

As someone mentioned above, there's a lot of advice being thrown at you, and I can't say that I've taken it all in . . . but at some point these sorts of inquiries produce something more like a weight of opinion than innovative responses, and I'm tossing in my two bits. Discount accordingly.

1. Your legal obligation may vary by jurisdiction. Much of what has been said above is accurate by way of generalization, but none can be trusted as could (more or less) a consultation with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. How good that advice will be can vary dramatically. If you don't have a lawyer you trust, or want to do some initial exploration before consulting one, browse your local law library or do some casual web research, focusing on the law in your jurisdiction.

2. I am struck by the number of posters who are confidently giving you moral advice when, to my impression, that was not what you were requesting. For my part, I think it depends not only on your own (not our) conception of the good and your responsibilities, but also on what you think the confessor expected. It is entirely possible that he anticipated confidentiality, but that shouldn't be decisive; the same is true of many circumstances in which most would disregard it (e.g, an ongoing harm, regardless of legal duty).

The still more salient question is whether he had legitimate reason to think that you would keep it confidential. This requires, among other things, a better understanding of what you said and how he approached you. For example, it doesn't strike me as impossible that he would approach a minister because he wants wise counsel and someone who will act according to refined moral sensibilities, not just because he wanted to get something off his chest without any possibility that something would happen of it. Only you know this.

3. As to the oft-repeated advice that you talk to him, to get him to do something about it himself, please consider the possibility -- which may be very remote, or even laughable -- that to the extent this would taken as a threat, it could put you in harm's way.

Best of luck to you in this difficult situation.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:50 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

clergy confidentiality trumps those concerns easily

As a secular humanist in a democratic society, I really REALLY disagree with the above statement. The legal issues need to be clarified for you, first and foremost, so get a free consult from a lawyer immediately. But it needs to be emphasized that not everyone in a democratic society believes wholeheartedly in the notion of "clergy confidentiality."

The fact that you're asking this question here leads me to believe you have doubts about it yourself. Honor those doubts.
posted by mediareport at 8:29 PM on October 20, 2006

No matter how many times I read this phrase, it just sounds outrageous. He killed someone. He should be punished. Premeditated murder is not OK, ever.

But it is okay if it's not premeditated? We don't know if it was or not from the description.

You're OK with letting someone go unpunished for murder as long as they won't do it again? Really?

Well, certainly things wouldn't work very well if each person got to kill one person without consequences, but this guy has already 'gotten away' with it. The drifter had no relatives, no one is suffering because of his loss, no one is thirsting for revenge, and we only have one person wracked by guilt. Would the world be a better or worse place with him in jail, assuming he wouldn't kill anyone else?

The phrasing was sort of meant in an ironic way, though "Just because he killed someone?" It's obviously a big deal.

From a practical, self-interested perspective, you don't really know that. If I really was in your situation, I don't know what I would do, but I would be very pissed about being told, quite frankly, since he's basically "dumping" all this guilt on you. It's not really fair.
posted by delmoi at 8:36 PM on October 20, 2006

I have no clue what your legal obligation is.

There is not a chance in hell I would consider turning him tho, if that helps any.
posted by thirteen at 8:38 PM on October 20, 2006

delmoi: Well, certainly things wouldn't work very well if each person got to kill one person without consequences, but this guy has already 'gotten away' with it. The drifter had no relatives, no one is suffering because of his loss, no one is thirsting for revenge, and we only have one person wracked by guilt. Would the world be a better or worse place with him in jail, assuming he wouldn't kill anyone else?

I count at least seven completely unsubstantiated assumptions in that paragraph.

clergy confidentiality trumps those concerns easily

As a secular humanist in a democratic society, I really REALLY disagree with the above statement.

I gotta go with mediareport on this one.
posted by JackFlash at 9:02 PM on October 20, 2006

All those saying "let it go" or equivalent: all we know, aside from the verifiable substance abuse issues, is this confessor's story. Maybe he killed someone and felt the need to get that off his chest, but at the same time he could still have decided to fabricate all the details around it to make it sound more justifiable.

Did this girlfriend even exist?

We don't know. But suppose you knew that he was lying about the existence of the girlfriend. Would you be so quick to let him off the hook then?

Which is not to say that anon should definitely turn him in, but the decision shouldn't be one based on the "certainty" that he won't do it again; there's nowhere near enough information to decide that.
posted by juv3nal at 9:16 PM on October 20, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe, a serious question, you seem to believe your assertion passionately but can you provide an objective authority that ministers participating in confessions are bound to secrecy?

None whatsoever. But.

I am not aware of any Christian sect that performs confessions in which secrecy is not utterly absolute. In my own (ECUSA) tradition, the language is similar to what I used: morally absolute.

Irrespective of whatever tradition anonymous comes from, he entered the tradition of hearing confessions by hearing a confession. If you don't like the secrecy of the confession, your remedy is to cease hearing confessions and to warn people who start confessing to you that you cannot hear them.

But it needs to be emphasized that not everyone in a democratic society believes wholeheartedly in the notion of "clergy confidentiality."

Clergy confidentiality doesn't mean that anonymous is protected by the law. Clergy confidentiality means anonymous never reveals the subject of a confession, even if ordered to by a judge or officer of the law, even if that means enduring an indefinite stay in jail or any other punishment levied by the government.

Following booksandlibretti, I find it frankly disturbing that any Christian pastor would even consider revealing something that was said in what can only be described as a confession.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:17 PM on October 20, 2006

I can't believe that no one has suggested yet that the Confessor very likely is seeking some further intervention in this or he wouldn't have mentioned it at all.

The guy reached out to you, someone he felt he could trust. I would repay that trust by going back to the guy and talking it through further with him - even convincing him of a course of action should your own lawyer suggest that you take that course with the Confessor.

There's no grand accountant in the sky who's going to put this in any kind of ledger, and whatever the facts I have a hard time believing that you would be in any legal jeopardy whatever you choose to do. What you have is someone who has pretty clearly asked for help - now it's your turn.
posted by mikel at 9:18 PM on October 20, 2006

Confessing a sin to a minister is hardly the same as "dumping" your guilt on someone.

Ten years ago, the guy killed someone in a fit of rage, and then the girlfriend he killed for died in a car accident. Since then, he's been numbing his guilt with drugs and alcohol. He's now sober. He has to face what he did without emotional novocaine. If I were him (there but for the grace of God...), my first tentative steps toward atonement would probably be confessing my crime to people I believed totally safe. Therapists and ministers are the archetypes of safety and wisdom in times of moral trauma, aren't they? The idea that a person with a horrible blemish on his conscience can lay it bare to someone without fear of betrayal is a really beautiful one. His admission of his crime to you - after ten years of silence - is, in my mind, a strong indicator that he's beginning to face his guilt straight on. Like ikkyu2 said, you're probably not the last person he's going to tell. He didn't stop with his therapist; he won't stop with you.

Of course it's quite a burden on you, but for Christ's sake, this is what you signed up for when you became a minister. It's not all potlucks and Easter Egg hunts. We've all got sins, and for some those include Really Big, Really Inconvenient Sins that are Against the Law. So are you just going to dump this guy on the criminal justice assembly line or are you going to take on the devil by the horns and take the chance to actively facilitate this guy's redemption?

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Dostoevsky...
posted by granted at 9:46 PM on October 20, 2006 [5 favorites]

I can't tell you what to do legally, but if I were in your place I wouldn't turn him in. Listen to ROU_Xenophobe and filmgeek—this is your chance to help someone lead a better life, not punish him unnecessarily for past sins. He's already been punished enough.
posted by limeonaire at 9:50 PM on October 20, 2006

It occurs to me that there's half a chance that whatever the OP tells the police would be so egregiously inadmissible as to permanently prevent a successful prosecution.

And this committed atheist doesn't have such a problem with defending the professional confidentiality between a (any) counsellor and her client - weaken one end of this principle and you're unlikely to enjoy the way it eventually looks at the other end.
posted by genghis at 9:54 PM on October 20, 2006

I'm late to the party but here's my 2 cents.
- warning: deeply held religious beliefs follow -
This may be one of the reasons you are here, now, at this time. God may have tried to swing this happenstance so that some good can come out of this tragedy. What would Jesus do? What would the man that said to love all others above yourself do in this situation?
I think that's what I'd mediate on.
posted by forforf at 9:54 PM on October 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

Just to pile on:

This situation seems unlikely. My apologies if it's true, but I cannot imagine a learned man of faith NOT having spent some time pondering his role and even this very sort of situation and what his reaction would be. So that's the first alarm bell.

The details of the situation as described by the "confessor" seem mighty peculiar. It's been years since I've been a teenager, but I was a selfish prat like nearly every other teen throughout history, and the described selfless charity seems extremely unlikely. Would a teenage girl actually stop to pick up the guy if she was by herself?

16-year-old kids who are 6'8" and with the strength to kill a man (one assumes a gun wasn't used) are very rare. 16-year-old kids composed enough to kill a man, dispose of the remains without a trace and continue on with their lives are fewer still.

If you've known the confessor since before the murder, even as a casual acquaintance, you almost certainly knew "Roy," then? I mean, if they picked him up every day to help him run his errands, lots of busybodies in a rural small town are going to note that...and most certainly the jock and his girlfriend's friends would all know. And if they know, a small rural school knows. So who was Roy?

You describe a truck, from the sound of it a pickup. Anyone else have any trouble imagining a couple of high schoolers happily sitting in the cab of a pickup with a homeless guy? The girlfriend between the two men, one possibly (probably?) frequently in need of some soap? Or did he climb in the back, rain or shine?

Assuming the story is true, and excuse me for being cynical about it, one thing is clear: You have only heard one side of the story. It may have gone down just as described, but maybe Jock caught Roy looking at his girlfriend's arse and blew a gasket? Maybe girlfriend was looking for some attention and merely said Roy raped her, again causing the blown gasket? Maybe the kids were psychos and simply had a thrill killing? Maybe the jock hit a homeless guy while driving home from a party and has felt horrible about it since, and in the years has wrapped this story around himself as a protective salve? Maybe it went down just as written? How can we know?

The point is, none of us can know, which means that none of us are in a position to condone (or condemn) the murderer's actions.

The only stand-up, moral action for the murderer is to turn himself in, lead the police to the body, and let society determine his punishment (which, frankly, if the circumstances are as described probably isn't going to be even 20 years in the slammer). Whether he can make peace with his god is his own business, and can just as easily be done by meditating in a prision cell as it can being "a free man"--and "free man" is a misnomer, as this man clearly isn't free. I imagine the relief of being able to put this in his past would outweigh any "damage" done to him by whatever punishment society deems acceptible.

Your moral duty (as I see it) is to help this man to perform his duty to society. He clearly has a desire to repay his debt, and any touchy-feely solution is going to leave lingering doubts with you and your confessor.

On preview: I'm with ajr, unfortunately.
posted by maxwelton at 10:16 PM on October 20, 2006

clergy confidentiality trumps those concerns easily

As a secular humanist in a democratic society, I really, really agree with the above.
posted by dripdripdrop at 10:17 PM on October 20, 2006

By what kind of ethical framework do you live your life? I can't make the decision for you, but you might want to step back and consider some of the ways people make decisions like this and see which one is closest in line to your normal behavior ...

Legal: "The laws of $arbitrarycountry in the state of $yourstate in the $yearofourlord state that my obligations are as follows ..." Are you a person who selects the human, secular law as their highest governing force? Recall that these laws are often quite arbitrary in that I can take actions one day that are illegal, but legal the next. I can cross a state line and suddenly things I normally do become illegal. The law also sanctions murder (that is, the killing of other human beings) by executioners, soldiers, police, doctors, and, hell, even corporations. Pharmaceutical companies know some percentage of people taking their products will croak, so do car manufacturers. Human law is highly dependent on time, place, subject, who you know, etc.

Social contract: "What obligations do I have to this individual when he came to me for confession? Will I violate a trust? What obligations do I have to my role as a minister? How will turning this man in affect confession as a whole? What are my obligations to keep secrets?"

Religious: "My $holytext states that the prophet $thisguy thinks I should do X under these circumstances." What Would Diety Do? I've taken a gander at the Old Testament ... quite a bit of mighty smackdown and bloodshed on some pretty flimsy excuses. Jesus whipped some moneylenders who charged too much interest, right? Who knows what he'd do with a rapist? Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?

Outcome based: Examine the potential outcomes as they affect yourself, your family, the Confessor, the Confessor's family, Roy, Roy's family (if he had one), the dead girl, the dead girl's family, and finally the nebulous "society." What are the pros and cons? Would going to the DA even do anything, as the confessor might not be in a huge hurry to point out the locatoin of the body?

Of note: You said that you are a minister, but not his minister. I'm not a Christian, but as a thought experiment, tell me, would Jesus approve of your decision to abdicate responsibility because you're not his minister, or would Jesus say, "Dude, you're a minister. That means the whole flock, not just a couple of sheep you happen to know real well."
posted by adipocere at 10:23 PM on October 20, 2006

FYI, mefi says the server doesn't pass on any identifying info to them along with an anonymous submission. I imagine something could be assembled if any data were saved such as IP addresses of users at their logins and of anonymous-post submitters -- but assuming it's not, I don't think mefi is in any compromised or responsible position whatsoever.
posted by lorimer at 11:00 PM on October 20, 2006

ajr : This has "hoax" written all over it.

Argh, I hate threads like this for exactly this reason. Yeah, it does smell like a hoax, but we have to operate on the assumption that it isn't. Weird shit happens. That the circumstances sound like they could have come from a movie shouldn't stop us from making our best effort to answer the question. Think of AskMe as the ultimate intellectual exercise (that's what I do.) No matter how far out it is, I try to give an answer that might help the questioner. If they are just doing it for the fun of it, or for research, or because it really happened doesn't matter to me.

I stand by my earler post, but I have to ask, who knows if the person who confessed is telling the truth? Who knows if there was actually a girl who was raped? Who knows if the confessed won't do this again. People here are saying things like: he does not seem to be a danger to society (not to single that poster out, there were several statements like that, theirs was the first I found). How possibly could someone on a web site, with minimal facts, make that kind of assessment? How do we know that this isn't an attempt to vindicate the killers obsession will ending hobos and indigents? We don't. We are making assumptions where assumptions shouldn't be made.

AskMe's one great failing is that it brings out the moralist in all of us. The problem is, that the morals we espouse tend to be based on assumptions and presuppositions. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing, the concern I have is that those assumptions are never based on what the OP said, but on what our fellow Askmefites have conjectured.


All that said, and ignoring everything else, my personal moral structure suggests that you should listen to scrump, twice.
posted by quin at 11:06 PM on October 20, 2006

I strongly disagree with all this "he killed someone, he should be punished." In a Christian framework, Jesus died to offer forgiveness for sins. Before Jesus, yeah, people had to be punished "an eye for an eye." After that, forgiveness was available to even the worst sinners.

The penal system's only use is to take dangerous people off the street. In this case, throwing him into it does nothing but ruin his life (further). Why subject him to that? His own conscience, his future, God's law, those are the core of the matter. He is his own toughest judge, his guilt is the harshest punishment, his future lies in suffering until he finally finds forgiveness... Why would anyone turn in a person wracked with guilt who poses no further danger to anyone??

Yes, murder is wrong. But the U.S. government and its jurisdictions do not administer moral justice. They do not balance the cosmic scales of good and evil. They themselves are often immoral -- wars, police sometimes kill the innocent, state prison guards "administer the death penalty" in cold blood. Turning someone in to the government is a practical act, not a moral act.

Jesus said "give to Caesar that which is Caesar's." So, yeah, give your coins to the government at tax time. Otherwise, God's law is the higher law. As I understand it, he gets forgiven if he repents. Help him figure out what that means. Work with him, help him forgive himself, encourage him to repay his moral debt by helping others. Talk to a military chaplain about how to help those traumatized by having done something they know is wrong.

/ raised Methodist, now a "secular humanist" who still believes that grace and forgiveness and helping those worst off are the core teachings of Christianity. And sorry to be so didactic. This just gets me really worked up.
posted by salvia at 11:07 PM on October 20, 2006

Anon, my grandfather is a retired methodist minister who was also at one point president of his seminary. If you want some anonymous minister advice, I can put you in touch with him. My email is in my profile.
posted by salvia at 11:10 PM on October 20, 2006

I am a lawyer, and I agree with everything in raf's post above.

It will depend on the state, but it is unlikely that you have any legal obligation to report this to anyone.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:17 PM on October 20, 2006

I'm with crouton. One way or another — and my conflicted responses to the main question are well represented by other peoples' comments here — the dead guy's body needs to be found, and his kin should know.
posted by hattifattener at 11:51 PM on October 20, 2006

It amazes me how many MeFites are telling anonymous that the legal ramifications don't matter and thereby ignoring the question entirely. anonymous is asking specifically about "my legal obligation," and downplaying that is just offering bad advice.

With that said, talk to a lawyer who is not employed by the D.A.'s office, and don't tell anyone else until you have—you can't un-tell someone once you've told them. (I'd also ask Matt or Jessamyn to delete this post because it contains a lot of potentially identifying information.)

You might want to actually go in and pay for an hour of consultation time. Isn't your peace of mind worth that much?
posted by oaf at 12:11 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Does rape justify murder? Maybe in self defence; self defence justifies many things.

But n this case? No. No No No. A mentally unstable 6 ft 8 man who has snapped once and killed is not a man who should be on the street, not matter how commendable the guilt that has led him to ruin his life.

Now, whether the clergyman has the obligation to reveal, I don't know. But like Optimus Chyme, I find it very very creepy the benefit of the doubt that is being given to this confessed murderer.

And, I would like to think that the clergyman, and Jesus, and maybe even the majority of metafilterians, would not be so crass as to think the life of an indigent is not worth the same in the eyes of god as any other life on earth.* And I say that as an atheist. Yes: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, that is what Jesus would do. God help us from vigilante justice.
posted by Rumple at 12:21 AM on October 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Strong agreement with oaf that there's too much unusual identifying info in the OP -- enough to identify this confessor if this confession really happened (or, worse yet, if it didn't happen but someone is making a roundabout attempt to defame a certain 6'8" 26-year-old).
posted by allterrainbrain at 12:45 AM on October 21, 2006

Do you have a superior, mentor, another minister friend perhaps, with whom you could talk? I would imagine a person in a similar ministerial position would have a better viewpoint on the situation than the entire internet.
posted by rhapsodie at 12:51 AM on October 21, 2006

Don't suspect a friend. Report him.
posted by flabdablet at 12:54 AM on October 21, 2006

Optimus Chyme: And here you are, sitting on your fat asses, saying it's okay to kill, that a murder can go unpunished, that the rules are different if you're young and angry and if no one sees you do it.

I understand what you're saying - the only reason this guy gets to be at summer camp, with the luxury to take his sweet time coming to terms with his crime, is that he killed a bum that nobody gave a shit about. But murder is murder even if your victim is a crusty old hobo who raped your girlfriend, and the guy should be dealt the same punishment that every other murderer gets.

I just don't see it as so simple. Punishment doled out by the American legal system is not the only valid punishment (to me, though I guess your belief on that score depends on what you believe the purpose of punishment to be). Furthermore, saying that anon shouldn't turn the confessor into the police is not the same thing as saying that murder is okay and should go unpunished - the question is whether anon is morally obligated to faciliate that punishment, and if he is, whether or not that moral obligation trumps his moral obligation as a confidant.

scrump: Do not let your completely understandable and entirely human desire to empathise with a very troubled and very conflicted human being blind you to your moral and ethical obligations.

Unless your own personal moral and ethical code is deeply connected to or even based on empathy.
posted by granted at 12:55 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

maxwelton: Would a teenage girl actually stop to pick up the guy if she was by herself?

I guess I've known more dumb, trusting teenage girls than you have.
posted by evariste at 12:55 AM on October 21, 2006

It also occurs to me the murderer's breakdown and torubled life are due to his girlfriend's death in the traffic accident and have nothing to do with any sort of remorse or displaced repentance. He probably just missed his girlfriend. Certainly with the information given it seems just as possible, especially since he didn't breakdown for at least a couple of years after his crime.

In any case, minimally, he probably shouldn't be working at a childrens' summer camp

Unless your own personal moral and ethical code is deeply connected to or even based on empathy.

Like this guy, for example, empathising with fetuses.

Really, doesn't sheep:minister confidentiality violate the principle of separation of church and state in a case like this?
posted by Rumple at 1:12 AM on October 21, 2006

Physical freedom isn't worth a damn without spiritual peace. This secret will ruin his entire life if it doesn't come out one way or another. Do what it takes to get this information to the police; obviously it will be better in every way if he comes forward himself but you may not be able to make that happen.
posted by teleskiving at 1:15 AM on October 21, 2006

Just for the record, I call "hoax", twice over.

Once for the minister who doesn't know what the rules are and asks MeFi for help rather than another minister; once for the very movie-like plot which manages to detail one of the most "forgiveable" murders ever (people keep saying it was premeditated when the OP clearly says otherwise).

I can almost see a director saying to a writer "I need the character to be a murderer: but we need lots and lots of details added to the murder so that the audience can forgive him". "Don't worry," says the writer "I can do that -- homeless guy, that way nobody will miss him; homeless guy who did something terrible, so that you can understand the rage. Then we'll have the character suffer terribly from guilt and loss and become a substance abuser; that way the audience can feel he's already paid for his sins".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:35 AM on October 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

That man was still a human being, and the confessor killed him. He took his life away. Think about that a bit. What the homeless individual did was horrible and atrocious -- that does not under any level of justifiability and confidentiality let him kill him.

He has done something illegal. He needs to deal with the consequences of his actions.
posted by spiderskull at 1:39 AM on October 21, 2006

For what it's worth, I also tend to think that the question is utterly false. But in AskMe you must go by the assumption that it's not.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:40 AM on October 21, 2006

You have no way of knowing if this story is true to any degree so as to the moral question involved you should not determine your course of action with respect to reporting this to authorities on the basis of his story. He could be exactly as he described himself, or he could be a cold-blooded murderer of an entirely innocent person, or he may not be a murderer at all. You cannot use his description of his crime to determine what is an appropriate response to it because you cannot know if his description is accurate.

Your legal obligations have been covered fairly well by the lawyers who've posted already—you likely have no responsibility to report and his confession is probably privileged. However, "likely" isn't "certainly" and you must consult an attorney for your jurisdiction for the correct, informed advice.

Back to the moral issue—because you cannot use his description of the crime as a guide for what you should do, you should instead make your decision about what to do on the basis of principle. What is your church's and/or your own principle on the matter of penitents confessing to a past crime? If there isn't one, then you should create one and act accordingly.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:08 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in ibmmcginty's position and I agree-- go with RAF's advice.
posted by LGCNo6 at 3:28 AM on October 21, 2006

FYI, mefi says the server doesn't pass on any identifying info to them along with an anonymous submission.

This is incorrect.
posted by IronLizard at 3:32 AM on October 21, 2006

Since you say you're not his minister, I think the best thing to do here would be to take it to his usual minister and see what he thinks of it all.
posted by reklaw at 3:44 AM on October 21, 2006

The guy has come to you asking for forgiveness. I concur with ROU_xenophobe above; don't turn him in, but do consult a lawyer. I don't think it would be a problem to suggest to the guy that he turn himself in, because while he his made his peace with $deity and $church (we can assume), he may still need to have peace with $justice_system before he can move on.
posted by arimathea at 5:27 AM on October 21, 2006

What possible value is your membership in a 'moral' organization if you have to come to metafilter toresolve what is clearly in the scope of your study?

Thanks for a particularly clear illustration of why church is useless.

Don't hide behind your cowardice. Turn this man in and let the system work. God is a complete fiction, and the law imperfect, but you live under it. Or does it not apply to Christians?
posted by FauxScot at 5:53 AM on October 21, 2006

booksandlibretti, you're assuming the minister went to seminary. That's a really big assumption as a suprising number of people serving as ministers do not and are not required to go to seminary. The fact that the minister stated in his OP that he has no higher church authority to turn to for advice and that each congregation is independant leads me to believe he's just someone who "felt the calling" and found a group to list to him. I seriously wonder if he has formal training like seminary or something more like a weekend conference at the local Hilton.
posted by onhazier at 6:07 AM on October 21, 2006

Don't narc, just stay out of it. If he feels that guilty he will turn himself in.
posted by Mach5 at 6:10 AM on October 21, 2006

My suspicion is that this question is a hoax, too. The facts are implausible for all the reasons set forth by maxwelton. It reads too much like a law school exam question, perfectly set up for legal analysis and debate. But assuming it's not a hoax, I think raf's comment contains the best advice I have read here.

I poked around on Westlaw after reading this question, and the law of penitent-confessor privilege is far more complicated than some people above are making it out to be. See Claudia G. Catalano, Annotation, Subject Matter and Waiver of Privilege Covering Communications to Clergy Member or Spiritual Adviser, 93 A.L.R.5th 327 (2001).

In my opinion you will be doing the young man a grave harm, and abdicating your responsibility as clergy, if you base your actions in this matter on something you read here on Metafilter. (And I would think that, for many of your congregants, for you to share this information with authorities would appear to be an unpardonable breach of your duty to attend solely to their spiritual concerns. I've never known a minister who felt him/herself dually obligated to dispense spiritual advice, and assist authorities in bringing congregants to justice for possible crimes.) The law on this question is very complex and you have no reason to trust anyone here on Metafilter to give you correct guidance -- except me, of course ;-) . People have said things in this thread, with great confidence, that are almost certainly wrong.

My gut instinct is that the communication is very likely protected by the penitent-confessor privilege, but the facts of your situation are complex and the law of penitent-confessor privilege is both state-specific and highly fact-intensive, so it's possible that an attorney, in your state, wouldn't even be able to answer the question with any certainty. If you go to the authorities, it would be up to a court to decide whether the communication was protected by the privilege or not.

Here's an excerpt from the annotation I cited above. I quote this just to show you the complexity of this question.

Modern courts among the states of the United States of America have almost unanimously denied the existence of a common-law privilege relating to communications to clergy members. Yet, in the vast majority of jurisdictions in the United States, the privilege attaching to communications to clergy members has been sanctioned by statute. The privilege recognizes "the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return." Justification for the privilege also is grounded in society's interest in encouraging the development of religious institutions by securing the privacy of the penitential communication. Counterbalanced against such interests is the public's right to hear all evidence in its search for the truth.

Statutes defining the ministerial privilege do not render a communication privileged merely because it has been made to a clergy member. Rather, the typical statute imposes a number of conditions that must be met before the privilege comes into play or is rendered applicable to a particular communication.

One of the most important conditions prescribed by statutes, and one that, like many of the other conditions, has also been recognized as a requisite to the applicability of the privilege in cases where it has received judicial sanction in the absence of a statute, is that the communication be made to the clergy member "in the course of discipline enjoined by the Church to which he belongs." Although courts have expressed varying interpretations as to what constitutes or is meant by the "discipline enjoined" by the church, many have generally recognized that satisfaction of this condition is a requisite to the applicability of the privilege. Similarly, the courts have afforded general recognition to the requirement that the communication must have been made to the clergy member "in his [or her] professional character," a condition that has received its clearest application in those cases where communications were made to clergy members serving two roles. Statements made to a clergy member who was also a mental health counselor, a hospital employee, an interpreter, notary public, or similar functionary, a government official, the communicant's relative by blood or marriage, the communicant's friend, the victim, or related to victim have been held privileged when it was determined that the clergy member was acting as such at the time of the communication and held not privileged when it was found that the clergy member was not acting in that capacity.

Some statutes dealing with the privilege speak with reference to "confessions" or "admissions." This language has been construed by some courts as requiring that a communication be penitential in character to come within the scope of the privilege. Many statutes refer simply to "communications" or employ similar terms. Courts interpreting such language, not surprisingly, have taken the view that a communication need not be penitential in character to fall within the purview of such language.

Another condition that is sometimes specifically referred to in statutes establishing the privilege, which, even in the absence of such specific reference, has been recognized as a prerequisite to the applicability of the privilege, is that the communication be intended as confidential. Perhaps the most obvious application of this condition is found in those cases holding the privilege inapplicable to communications made to a clergy member with the intention or tacit understanding that they would be transmitted to third persons. Even where the decision to disclose the communication to a third party was made unilaterally by the clergy member, the privilege has been inapplicable based on the presumption that the communicant could not have reasonably expected under the circumstances that the communication would be held in confidence. Nevertheless, where there was no agreement, either actual or implied on the part of the communicant, that the communication should be other than confidential, the privilege has been upheld. Although the issue of confidentiality has been of equal importance in such cases, differing results have been reached, under the circumstances presented, in cases involving statements made to or in the presence of third persons, including elders, deacons, fellow church members, and the like and other persons. The results have depended in some cases on whether the person was "present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication," a condition found in some statutes setting forth the ministerial privilege.

Statutes establishing the privilege covering communications to clergy members typically do not specify whether the class of "confessants," or, in other words, those making the communication encompassed by the privilege, includes only members of the clergy member's church, or whether it extends to members of other churches, or, for that matter, to persons who are not members of any church. This question has been considered in a few cases, with some courts expressing the view that if the communication is otherwise within the purview of the statute the privilege applies or does not apply even though the confessant is not a member of the clergy member's church. The absence of a clergy member-parishioner relationship has been noted in some cases in which the privilege was held inapplicable.

Given the existence of the privilege, what particular matters or communications are encompassed by it? The answer to this question is dependent on the satisfaction of the various conditions that delineate and define the scope of the privilege. The interrelationship of these conditions makes it difficult to draw generalizations in some areas. For example, confessions or admissions of sin or guilt, denials of guilt or inconsistent statements as to guilt made by a communicant may or may not be deemed privileged, depending on the circumstances, including whether they were made "in the course of discipline enjoined" by the church and whether made to a clergy member in the clergy member's professional character. Threats by the communicant to do harm in the future have been held to be outside the communicant-clergy privilege, sometimes on public policy grounds. Out-of-court statements made by a clergy member to others (for example, law enforcement officials) as to the communicant's admission of guilt have been held to be outside the evidentiary privilege, except where the statement was then proffered at trial, the privilege being seen as evidentiary in character so as to prevent disclosure in legal proceedings, but not absolute so as to bar use by governmental officials in law enforcement or criminal investigation.

Opposite conclusions have been reached with regard to the question whether statements made to clergy members concerning marital problems, communications related to the act of a third person, or statements as to a testator's intentions are privileged. Opposite conclusions also have been reached by courts where the content of the communications was not specified. On the other hand, some uniformity, at least to the extent of ultimate result, has been exhibited in cases dealing with other types of communications. Communications relevant to the intention of an insured, statements about a deal the communicant made with police, and statements relevant to communicant's emotional state or feelings about the victim have been held to be privileged under the circumstances. The privilege has been held inapplicable to statements referring to the existence or location of a will. So, too, the privilege has been held not to apply to church baptismal records and similar documents, church personnel records, documents pertaining to the discipline of clergy member, or the like, or to the records of church-related or religious-oriented organizations. Differing results, however, have been reached where independent or pre-existing documents were entrusted to clergy member for safekeeping, depending on the facts of the case.

In connection with what matters are encompassed by the privilege, particular mention should perhaps be made of those cases in which the courts have considered the question whether the privilege extends to the personal observations of a clergy member. In this respect, many courts have held that the testimony of a clergy member as to personal observations and impressions is not privileged, but some courts have held that testimony as to the identity of a communicant is privileged, and a court has taken the position that the observations of a clergy member relative to a person's possession of a weapon might, under appropriate circumstances, constitute a privileged communication. Testimony as to what a clergy member did or did not do has been held not privileged.

In those cases in which it was argued that the ministerial privilege was waived, the courts have reached opposite conclusions, holding that the privilege was or was not waived, depending on a variety of circumstances. The determination to whom the privilege belongs has been of some importance in waiver cases.

posted by jayder at 6:44 AM on October 21, 2006

Nit: a confessor is the minister receiving the confession. The person making the confession is the "penitent."

OP: I am a lawyer, but not yours, and in my view it is essential that you receive the advice of your lawyer and that as part of advising you your lawyer seek and receive the advice of someone in a position to dispense authoritative advice on your religious obligations. The reason for having your lawyer do the consultation is that it will cover that communication with attorney-client privilige.

There are both principled and pragmatic reasons for the consultations.

First, you need to know what you must do, what you must not do, and what you are free to do as your conscience dictates.

Secondly, no matter what you do or don't do, you need to cover yourself because the confession is highly likely to come to light. The poster above who mentioned that your penitent is probably cracking is right -- if you don't drop the dime on him, someone else will. And the cops will eventually find out about the confession and come calling on you. You need to be able to show a sound basis for everything you did or didn't do.

Having a strong view of your religious obligations is important. This is true not only for your conscience but also for your self-interest. Courts (and cops) aren't likely to view in the same light the conduct of a minister of a church which doctrinally rejects the concept of pastoral absolution as they might view the conduct of a Catholic priest who is obliged, quite literally, to go to his death before violating the seal of the confessional. It may be that the distinction is immaterial in this case, or it may be quite real. You need to be sure.

While you lack a denominational or ecclesiastical superior, you surely went to seminary and your seminary surely has a professor of pastoral ethics or someone else upon whose advice your lawyer (and through him, you) can rely.
posted by MattD at 7:09 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Or, on a preview, a lot of what Jaydar said just before me -- only with cites!
posted by MattD at 7:11 AM on October 21, 2006

And as a derail, secular Mefites may be interested to know why there's such a sharp difference on the issue of confession between denominations. Catholics (and certain other Christinans) believe that Christ delegated the Apostles and their successors the authority to forgive ("absolve") sin. The basis of the sanctity of the confessional is that the priest has the personal power to dispense or withhold forgiveness unconditionally, or, more frequently, to forgive sin conditionally, subject to punishing one's self as the priest instructs ("penance"). It's easy to see how "confessions" to one whose doctrine doesn't give ministers that power can be different in legal character, as well.
posted by MattD at 7:17 AM on October 21, 2006

Mod note: a few comments removed, meta discussion on this topic can go into metatalk.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:23 AM on October 21, 2006

I don't believe in god--yours or anyone else's. I do, however, believe that the universe rights itself. From this perspective, the man in question has already paid the price for his crime: the loss of the woman he loved and the years of his life taken away by drugs and alcohol.

In my opinion, you should not turn the man in. If you do, he'll end up paying twice, and, since the universe always rights itself, he'll collect again in the future, which'll be good for no one.
posted by Manhasset at 7:30 AM on October 21, 2006

IMO, karma has paid him back. It sounds like he's pretty much destroyed his life over what he did.

Were I you, I would encourage him to continue confessing et al, and I would encourage him to take his story to the authorities. It seems likely to me that enough time has passed that he'll not be charged. Telling the authorities would help him clear his mind and help them scratch another case off the books.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:09 AM on October 21, 2006

Bullshit question.

But assuming (for fun) that this post isn't the concoction of some bored idiot: you have to do whatever anyone else, minister or not, would have to do, which is nothing.

You being a minister means that the killer had a little more reason to think he could confide in you without being turned in, but it doesn't mean you have to remain silent if you think you will do more good by turning him in. Suppose your turning him in would ruin your career but save a life: obviously, you would have to ruin your career. Suppose it would make a few other people less likely to confess horrible crimes but it would save a life: what good would those confessions be if the criminals weren't turned in? Turn him in if you think it will save a life. When a word could save a life, who needs a church or a minister that would let that person die?

But the killer isn't likely to kill again, so you won't save anyone by turning him in, and you will make sure that his life, messed up as it is, gets worse.

Meanwhile, the dead man has been dead to his family and friends for at least ten years. Letting them know that he wasn't poor old Uncle Roy (wasn't there an old Saturday Night Live routine...) who perhaps died happily and peacefully, or who might even come back some day, but instead was a nasty old man who gained a young girl's trust and then raped her the first chance he got, and then was beaten to death by a boy whom he also had managed to fool -- well, that's not an improvement for any of the living.

There's a chance you could do some good to other girls Roy might have raped, but it's a long shot. There's also a chance that the story will come out otherwise and you will be implicated, but no one is going to hold your silence against you. Let it lie. You aren't a police officer. If your god is watching, justice will be done in the end.

But I'm sure the whole story is fake.
posted by pracowity at 9:26 AM on October 21, 2006

Don't tell. That's what I would do if someone raped my girlfriend too. It's bad enough that he feels so guilty for it, let alone being punished for it. Congratulations to this guy for ridding the human race of someone who was not worthy to be a part of it.
posted by tabulem at 9:39 AM on October 21, 2006

Assuming this story is true, what if the girlfriend fabricated the story of rape?

Consider this week's development in Connecticut:

Police: Child wasn't molested in case that allegedly led dad to kill neighbor.
posted by ericb at 9:52 AM on October 21, 2006

I AM NOT A LAWYER, but I do know that one's legal obligations, like anyone's legal anythings, vary depending on the laws of the legal jurisdiction one is in. What I would do, anonymous, is I'd go to a payphone where nobody else can over hear me and call a lawyer in my area who does not know me or my voice and ask the lawyer. I would NOT use my home phone, office phone or cell phone, or anybody else's either. And I'd be sure to disable Caller ID with *67 before the actual phone number. I'd ask the lawyer, not a secretary or paralegal. I would NOT admit anything to him/her: I'd ask hypothetically -- like "Does somehow who..." and NOT "Do I..." -- and if the lawyer asks "Are you talking about yourself?" I'd repeat "I'm asking hypothetically."

The lawyer, being a businessperson, would probably try to get my business. If the lawyer wanted you to pay him/her BEFORE answering my question I won't do it: I'd find out if I need a lawyer -- if the answer is "No, you don't have to report this" then I don't need a lawyer for it. (If the answer is that you DO have to report it then you probably will want a lawyer representing and protecting you; I sure would.) And hey, I'd want a second opinion from another lawyer before committing myself to anything.

I don't know if you'd be bound by the laws of the place where you live or by where it was told to you; I think generally the laws for such things depend on the State, so if you were told in the state where you live it's the same law.

And if someone posted something like this to the Internet to me I'd take notes on it to carry with me when I talked to the lawyer, then after the call I'd tear the paper up into tiny pieces and flush it al away. I'd also delete all record of this from the browser cache: in Firefox in Linux one goes to the toolbar and clicks Edit, then Preferences, then Privacy, then Cache, then Clear Cache Now.

Note that like I said I am obviously not a lawyer and this is not legal advice; I'm not even sure it's legal to follow such advice or if it'd legal for me to give it. I'm just telling you (and the whole online universe) what I would do if somebody told me a story like that.

Now: people should stop asking AskMetafilter for legal advice, especially not for life-or-death matters like this. Legal questions are best answered by a lawyer in private. And by the way, if anybody wants to say I'm doing anything illegal in this comment, remember that I'm speaking hypothetically. Nobody's told me anything about anything like anonymous is describing, all I know about the subject of this thread is what I just read here.

(And yes, this whole question sounds like bullshit to me too.)
posted by davy at 10:41 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mod note: take metadiscussions to metatalk or email, please
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:45 AM on October 21, 2006

>Nit: a confessor is the minister receiving the confession. The person making the confession is the "penitent."

Thanks for making that point. And, again, something that the 'minister' asking this question doesn't know.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2006

On the legal question, the various comments about privelege of the clergy are largely irrelevant to the question of whether it is legally mandatory to report the crime.

In general, people are not legally required to report crimes they've heard about after the fact. Some states have laws requiring clergy, various professionals, and in some cases even the general public, to report suspected child abuse. There are other things for which various professionals are mandatory reporters, but as far as I can tell the child abuse laws are the only ones in the US that specifically include the clergy. They are discussed widely on the web, for instance here. The absence of any similar discussion of legal requirements for clergy to report other crimes suggests that there aren't any.

Here is one discussion that specifically mentions murder in the context of arguing that the mandatory reporting laws for child abuse are ill-considered, but it's twenty years old.
posted by sfenders at 1:40 PM on October 21, 2006

good point, ericb.

in addition to my agreement with the posters who have pointed out that for the love of God someone needs to find this man's remains, i have another point to make.

maybe i watch too much cold case, but what if this "roy" character, should he have actually existed, raped other women? what if the police have a sketch of him in a cold case somewhere, and they have 53 unclosed cases of girls reporting an indigent in the area raping them? wouldn't that kind of clear things up for a few people?

i know that sounds a bit far off, but here's my point: "what if?" as far as moral obligations of clergy go, i think it's all rubbish if this clergyman was never talked to, IN DEPTH, about confidentiality. if your belief system doesn't make it a BIG FLASHING ARROW of a point to tell you to keep what you hear in confession a secret, then your belief system obviously doesn't follow that train of thought--which, i should remind everyone, NOT ALL BELIEF SYSTEMS DO. so back to the legal obligations, i think that at the very least, it would be nice if lawyers and policemen and others in the field of what is LEGAL and what IS NOT LEGAL should be making those you should, at the very least, tell a lawyer.
posted by starbaby at 1:53 PM on October 21, 2006

You have no legal obligation to go to the authorities since it's a privileged conversation (same goes with lawyers for legal stuff and doctor's for medical stuff). I'm surprised you don't know this, which leads me to suspect that you are just trolling and not really a minister. Perhaps you are the one that committed the murder. Either way, you're lacking a basic understanding of a clergyman's responsilbility.

The only time a minister or priest is legally obligated to report something is if it falls into the category of a threat. For instance, a guy goes to a priest and says "I"m thinking about killing someone." The ability to prevent a crime trumps confidentiality in that case. This is rather open and shut.

Whether or not this is the moral thing to do? Well, that's a separate discussion.
posted by dhammond at 2:13 PM on October 21, 2006

Consider this week's development in Connecticut: Police: Child wasn't molested in case that allegedly led dad to kill neighbor.

Did "Roy" kill a man who is innocent or guilty of rape? We don't know.

Is it the job of the minister to establish the "facts of the case?" No.

Is it our job to attempt such? No.

Isn't it the police's job to investigate? Yes.

And, if the police find cause to bring action against "Roy," isn't it the job of a court -- and a jury-of-peers -- to then establish guilt or innocence and/or justification for any potential "punishment?" Yes.

Mr. Minisiter: Talk to a lawyer!
posted by ericb at 3:02 PM on October 21, 2006

I am a minister, but not his minister....I have been a casual acquaintance of this person since before the event occured.

Do confidentialty privileges apply in this case? I assume confidentialty privileges apply to lawyers and therapists after the point when an official professional agreement has been enacted. Did you, or he, ever explicitly agree that what the two of you talked about would be considered sacrosanct and confidential?

Do you consider every conversation you have with people -- especially those with individuals who are not members of your church - to be privileged and therefore off-limits for the pursuit of justice in instances where you learn about criminal behavior?

If the homeless man that was killed had been a member of your family, wouldn't you want someone to step forward to help in getting closure to his disappearance/death?

[BTW -- the more I read the OP's full question I can but help wonder if this is a case problem for a law school class . The nuances are all there: non-professional relationship with "Roy;" issue of "out-of-state" summer camp; no true establishment of whether a rape had occured or not; issue of "crimes-of-passion," etc., etc., etc.]
posted by ericb at 3:14 PM on October 21, 2006

*I can not, but help wonder*
posted by ericb at 3:16 PM on October 21, 2006

Every single one of the attorneys who have answered the question here have indicated that there is no definitive answer to the minister's legal obligations absent info regarding his jurisdiction. Every single one indicates that it is probably the case that the minister doesn't have a legal obligation to report and probably the case that the confession is legally protected as confidential. But both of those are probably, not certainly, and only consultation with an attorney familiar with the laws concerning this which apply in the relevant jurisdictions can correctly answer this question. So, for crying out loud, please everyone else stop saying differently and confidently asserting what the minister's obligations and rights are in this case. The question has been answered several times by those who are in the best position to answer it authoritatively, they agree on the answer, and that answer contradicts what a lot of non-lawyers have been asserting. So just stop it.

And, again, no good judgement about the "best" course of action is possible based upon the details as the penitent described them. The minister and we have no way of knowing how truthful the penitent's story is and therefore any judgement about whether the penitent and society is better served by reporting this crime or not reporting this crime is foundationless. With regard to the minister's conscience independent of his legal responsibilities, the answer to the question of whether or not to report it can only be found within the general context of how his particular variety of faith regards his moral obligations when a penitent confesses a crime. It simple is not necessarily true that the minister has had formal training from a seminary or has some other direction to look for authoritative guidance via some structure external to his church. However, the minister and his church probably have some sort of notions of doctrine regarding confessions and how that intersects with social responsibilities and, more to the point, the minister's church probably has supervising authority in the form of church elders or similar and it is with these folks, and their common faith, and via prayer, that the church should form (if it doesn't already exist) a general policy concerning such confessions. I urge the minister to consult his church's elders or governing council and work with them in a general way (without revealing this confession) on a policy concerning confessions. Then act on this case accordingly.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:27 PM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The only law mentioned so far that could possibly be relevant to the question as posed is misprision of felony, but that seems like a real long shot. FindLaw says Misprision of a felony "require[s] both knowledge of a crime and some affirmative act of concealment or participation."

I see no reason to suspect that the law has anything at all to say about the question.
posted by sfenders at 4:18 PM on October 21, 2006

One point that everyone seems to be taking for granted (although I have missed a few comments in this rather long thread) is that he is not the murder's minister. I am not so sure that a relationship as someone's minister cannot be established by listening to their story in the capacity as a minister. It sure sounds like that is what happened. Again, consult a lawyer in your jurisdiction.
posted by caddis at 4:57 PM on October 21, 2006

Do you consider every conversation you have with people -- especially those with individuals who are not members of your church - to be privileged and therefore off-limits for the pursuit of justice in instances where you learn about criminal behavior?

Just FYI, there are some criteria for establishing whether or not a given conversation should be considered confidential. That article and those criteria were written by another Protestant minister.

Setting: The key question about the setting of a disclosure is whether it is public or private.
"After an evening sermon I preached...[he] said he wanted to talk to me." Inconclusive, but I think the poster would've mentioned it if they'd spoken with other people present.

Type: Whether or not information conveyed implies [future] harm to the discloser or another person.
The guy didn't say anything about future crimes/harm. The minister can assume that having killed once, the guy will kill again; or he can believe that the murder occurred because of a specific set of causes, that because the guy is so traumatized by the murder he is unlikely to view killing as a viable solution in the future, and that the guy has changed his ways greatly ("rehab and recovery"?) since the murder and is no longer the same person.

Purpose: ...The important question in this context is whether a person is confessing sins (real or imagined) and asking for God’s forgiveness through the clergyperson or whether he or she is disclosing general information for purposes other than confession.
"[H]e came to me, clearly, because he wanted to speak to a minister."

To Whom Disclosures Are Made: The legal system has struggled to define who counts as "clergy" in cases that involve mandated reporting and privileged communication.
As an ordained member, the poster is clearly a member of the clergy.

The article also discusses a survey (that the author conducted) in which the people she asked assumed even more confidentiality than discussed here. I think that's a pretty fair assumption, so quite apart from religious concerns, it would be ethical to clear up misapprehensions that people are likely to have.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:11 PM on October 21, 2006

Also from booksandlibretti's post:

[M]any clergy work in churches that give them little guidance about confidentiality. In such cases, it is largely up to each minister to decide which approach to confidentiality is morally, ethically and theologically faithful.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:33 PM on October 21, 2006

Personally I'd think that anonymous had a moral obligation to keep silent that s/he has now breached, but that s/he should honor forevermore, with the person who already confided/confessed and with everyone else who might do so in the future. If that's too much of a burden to carry with one's own intestinal fortitude and/or the assistance of one's Deity, then in the future s/he should say "But before you start, if it concerns anything illegal you might have done please don't tell me because I'm not strong enough to carry such burdens." And I feel the same way about anybody in a position of "counsel" -- rabbi, therapist, family doctor, etc. -- who is customarily held to be someone who should keep one's secrets. (Note that a cabdriver or some random guy at the bus stop is NOT usually held to such a standard; confessing to any random stranger is damn near begging to be turned in.)

As to anyone's legal obligations, again, I have no idea; I'd say talk to a lawyer, perhaps using the procedure I devised for protecting youir anonymity.
posted by davy at 10:31 PM on October 21, 2006

I'm not going to touch the moral aspects of the question. What is right for me, may not be right for you. That said, the most important thing that has been said over and over...and which you *really* need to take away from this is: Hire a lawyer so that you are covered by client privacy laws. Tell him/her the problem. Get their legal advice. Follow it.
posted by dejah420 at 11:08 AM on October 22, 2006

what a revealing range of responses to this one! a lot of assumptions built in as well (like 'this guy is not likely to murder again' and that the murder victim indeed raped someone)...

i think the more honest consideration would be: if the victim was not homeless but was any member of society you (or the murderer) would respect--a father (and he might have been), a relative of yours, a friend--would you still be debating whether you should say something? if your dilemma gives consideration to the 'quality' of the person supposedly murdered (and it seems to, or you wouldn't have felt the need to include those details), i would say that your faith-based morality has already failed you, and thus your obedience to this confessional technicality is uncalled for...

...and do you give any weight to the self-serving hypocrisy that this guy committed murder, an ultimate crime against humanity, and yet would rely on your strict adherence to a faith-based legal loophole?

i think the failure to report this could mean that the details of the case will never be investigated--the story could turn out to be completely different than you have been led to believe---and any of the opinions here that encourage not coming forward might be changed rather easily by uncovering a few choice details that have not been confessed (not to mention that not a damn one of them would be as generous were such vigilante justice carried out against their own friends/family)...

i do have to say overall that any religion whose agents would maintain silence in the face of murder deserves no place of respect in our society...if the church doesn't trust our justice system (which, despite its faults, has put more reasonable standards on what is just and what isn't, as compared with religion) then at the very least the church should give up its tax-exempt status in protest--just as this supposed murderer is hypocritical in his appeal to rules he otherwise has no respect for, the church would be hypocritical in profiting from a system whose ideals it does not respect...
posted by troybob at 2:18 PM on October 22, 2006

if the victim was not homeless but was any member of society . . . would you still be debating whether you should say something?

It took 136 posts for someone to observe this.

posted by quadog at 1:20 AM on October 23, 2006

It took 136 posts for someone to observe this.

actually chickletworks made a similar point above, but that's still only 2 out of all of these. that's pretty disappointing.
posted by andywolf at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2006

At least some of us didn't observe it in writing because it we weren't distinguishing homeless from homeful. It never even came close to crossing my mind, for instance, that someone might think there'd be a difference.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:54 PM on October 23, 2006

It took 136 posts for someone to observe this.

What? I thought Optimus Chyme covered it in Comment #3: The fact that the dead man was an indigent and a rapist does not make him any less worthy...
posted by salvia at 4:52 PM on October 23, 2006

posted by b33j at 10:39 PM on October 24, 2006

OP: No one here knows your legal responsibilities. You must call a lawyer as soon as possible.

That man was still a human being, and the confessor killed him. He took his life away. Think about that a bit. What the homeless individual did was horrible and atrocious -- that does not under any level of justifiability and confidentiality let him kill him.

Why the fuck not?
posted by spaltavian at 9:07 PM on October 30, 2006

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