The clergy–communicant privilege, historically known as the priest–penitent privilege, protects from discovery and trial evidence communications between an individual and a clergy member. And for good policy reason—the privilege encourages individuals to seek spiritual guidance without fear that clergy members will later reveal these confidential confessions.
Whenever I read about the clergy–communicant privilege, I’m reminded of the Seinfeld confessional scene where Jerry, who is Jewish, consults a Catholic priest to complain about a dentist’s conversion to Judaism. You may see that hilarious scene is this clip:
Murder and Confession
But the situation involving Lonny Mays and Rudy Romdall is no laughing matter. Mays shot and killed Romdall while Romdall and his dog sat in a pickup truck in the Sky Village retirement community where they both resided. Mays immediately went to see a neighbor and retired Pentecostal minister Joseph Rhodes.
Mays told Minister Rhodes that he “thought” he had killed someone with a .30-30 rifle and that his victim (Romdall) had been “bugging the fire out of him.”
Missouri’s clergy–communicant privilege, codified at Mo. Rev. Stat. § 491.060(4), declares that “any person practicing as a minister of the gospel, priest, rabbi, or other person serving in a similar capacity” is incompetent to testify “concerning a communication made to him or her in his or her professional capacity.”
Despite this clear prohibition, the trial judge in Mays’ murder trial denied a motion in limine and allowed Minister Rhodes to testify about his conversation with Mays. A jury convicted Mays of first-degree murder and the court sentenced him to life in prison.
A Violation but No Prejudice
On appeal, Mays argued that the clergy–communicant privilege should have precluded Minister Rhodes’ testimony. Reading between the lines, the appellate court apparently agreed because it did not directly address the issue. Instead, the court ruled that, even if the trial court should have excluded the minister’s testimony, the error was not so prejudicial to warrant a new trial.
The lack of prejudice existed because (1) there was other evidence independently sufficient to prove Mays’ guilt, and (2) Minister Rhodes’ testimony was not inconsistent with Mays’ theory of the case—that he shot Romdall in self-defense.
The clergy–communicant privilege is typically absolute, but apparently not in Missouri if other evidence renders it moot.