Friday, March 10, 2000
pastor can't betray the trust of those he counsels
By DAVID EPPS
A legal issue is brewing in Fayette County that may have serious implications for churchgoers.
The Official Code of Georgia Annotated states: Every communication by any person professing religious faith seeking spiritual comfort, or seeking counsel to any Protestant minister of the Gospel, any priest of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic Faith, any Jewish Rabbi, or to any Christian or Jewish Minister, by whatever name called shall be deemed privileged. No such minister, priest, or rabbi shall disclose any communication made to him by any such person professing religious faith, seeking spiritual guidance, or seeking counseling, nor shall such minister, priest, or rabbi be competent or compellable to testify with reference to any communication in court (O.C.G.A. 24-9-22).
Well, that sounds pretty comprehensive, doesn't it? If you read the above, wouldn't you believe, if you went to a minister, priest, or rabbi for counseling, that anything you shared in the counseling session would be kept confidential? In fact, in the law as quoted, the minister, priest, or rabbi (hereafter, the word minister will be used to refer to all such clergy designations) is actually forbidden under the law to disclose such information.
Yet, in June 1999, a College Park pastor, the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar, Jr., senior minister at the huge World Changers Church, received a subpoena to appear for a deposition in the matter of Janice Holyfield vs. Evander Holyfield and was ordered to produce, among other things, records of marital counseling sessions.
Dollar has refused to appear to give a deposition and has also refused to deliver documents or to provide information regarding the marital counseling sessions. As a result, he has been slapped with a contempt citation that may result in Dollar going to jail. The contempt charge, currently under appeal, was issued by a Fayette County Superior Court judge following the pastor's refusal to give a deposition.
Dollar has stated that testifying in a divorce case would destroy the trust between pastor and parishioner. Which, if course, is the reason that Georgia ministers are not compelled to testify in court in matters involving counseling. Dollar has vowed that he will go to jail before he complies with the order to turn over counseling records. Well, good for him. That's the kind of minister I would go to if I needed counseling or spiritual guidance.
Several years ago, I was struggling with some issues and went to a minister of a different denomination than the one in which I currently serve. I trusted the man and bared my soul, seeking wisdom about how to deal with the things I was facing. Within two weeks, a man in a town thirty miles from my location asked me about the things I had shared with the minister in confidence. I never went to the minister again and never shared anything beyond the time of day with him. He had betrayed my trust, an unforgivable sin for one who deals with delicate issues.
Not only does my current denomination believe in the sanctity of the confessional, our bishop has made it clear that any minister under his charge that violates the principles of confidentiality, even under the threat of a court order, will be out of his church, out of work, and out of the ministry. Well, good for him, too!
Recently, a teenager approached me and said, Father David, if I shared something with you in confession that was bad, you'd have to tell my parents, wouldn't you? He was quite shocked when I assured him that anything he shared with me would stay with me and would die with me, whatever the issue. If parents don't like that, tough.
Only with that level of commitment to confidentiality can the counselee have trust and confidence in the spiritual advisor. Too many church members, trusting their minister, have discovered, to their horror and dismay, that their trust, fearfully given, was cruelly betrayed. Once trust has been broken, it can never no, not ever be restored.
Like the Rev. Dollar, I have been subpoenaed to court in a divorce case. I did not refuse to appear but, once in court, I refused to reveal any information unless both parties, in my hearing, gave their full and unqualified permission.
In the future, the only difference will be that I will refuse to provide any confidential information even if both the parties give their permission. The stakes are too high to relent on this issue.
In my 28 years of ministry, I have heard confessions regarding every kind of sin and perversion. In fact, I'm pretty certain that nearly every sin has been confessed. Nothing shocks me, offends me or surprises me. My job is to help the person achieve peace with himself and peace with God and to help him or her become restored to a full and enjoyable life.
I am not a source of information for court proceedings. Neither is the Rev. Dollar. Neither is any other minister, priest or rabbi in the state of Georgia. Our job is not to make the court's job easier. Our job is to serve and assist those under our care.
Let's pretend for a moment that you have committed adultery. Or maybe you have been involved in a theft. Perhaps as a teenager you were involved with bestiality. Maybe you've been into prostitution. It could be that you are addicted to pornography. Maybe you appeared in a triple-X rated film. Perhaps you killed innocent people in a war zone. Maybe, you've even murdered someone. It may be that you are plagued with the memory of an abortion. Or maybe your issue is one of the thousands of other sins and problems that afflict humankind. No one wants their deepest and darkest secrets revealed. So, who do you go to get help and relief?
If you go to your minister, and if he is a person of ethics and integrity, you may rest assured that your story will remain private. Unless, of course, the minister betrays your trust (if you have any doubts, don't share your most intimate secrets) or unless the government attempts to intrude into the private domain of the church counseling room or the sacred confessional.
Some would argue that ministers are subject to the laws of the state in this matter. But I would argue that the above law assures both the minister and parishioner that the government is not to intrude and that the minister is forbidden to reveal this sensitive information to anyone. But sometimes the modern minister, like the ancient Apostle, simply must choose to obey God rather than man.
It won't be the first time that a Christian leader has been thrown into jail by the government for following his principles. It surely, though sadly, will not be the last.
[David Epps is the pastor at Christ the King Church. He may be contacted at www.ChristTheKingCEC.com or at FatherDavidEpps@aol.com.]