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Are Church Confessions Safe? Court To Hear Arguments

DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - In a case that could set national precedent, the three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel plans to hear arguments Thursday about whether a pastor's testimony related to a possible confession in a child sexual assault case may be used in court.

According to court documents, Samuel Bragg confessed in 2009 to the Rev. John Vaprezsan at Metro Baptist Church in Belleville about the 2007 assault of a 9-year-old girl when he was 15. Vaprezsan testified last March in the case against Bragg, who is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Bragg was 17 years old in 2009 when he went with his mother to speak with Vaprezsan. They deny that he made a confession. After earlier hearing an allegation from the girl's mother and then speaking with Bragg, Vaprezsan gave a statement to police.

Vaprezsan's testimony came over the objections of Bragg's attorney at a preliminary examination in 34th District Court in Romulus. The girl also testified.

Farmington Hills attorney Ray Cassar, who represents Bragg, said putting a pastor on the stand eliminates a person's presumption of innocence.

"If the pastor is allowed to testify, think about what it would do to the burden of proof. I mean, you're presumed innocent and if a pastor gets up on the stand to testify, most of the jury members are going to take his word, and I think that eliminates the presumption of innocence," Cassar told WWJ's Roberta Jasina.

Bragg was ordered to stand trial in the case, but Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway later tossed Vaprezsan's testimony. She said it violated state law saying no priest or pastor shall be required to disclose confessions made in their professional capacity.

Asked whether he had ever encountered such a situation, Vaprezsan said: "As pastors, we're involved in a lot of situations with families. I really don't consider the repercussions, I just try to help people."

"The issue here is when you speak with a pastor or clergy of any type, the presumption and the rule is that communication is privilege. We want people to go and seek out counseling and talk to their pastors about issues and problems, and we want them to do so without the fear that that information could later on be used against them," said Cassar.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Teri Odette said in court documents that a pastor's privilege doesn't apply in this case. Odette argued that Bragg's confession wasn't confidential because his mother was there, and it had nothing to do with church discipline or spiritual guidance.

"The communication was initiated by the pastor - not by the defendant - and was done to ascertain whether the victim was telling the truth, not for the purpose of spiritual guidance," said Odette.

Bragg is free on bond. If convicted, he faces a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.

"I think that religious leaders around the state of Michigan, if they knew about this case, they would be very upset and I think that they would be very vocal as to what dangerous precedent this could set," said Cassar.

The Michigan law governing clergyman-penitent issues are:

  • MCL 600.2156: No minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner, shall be allowed to disclose any confessions made to him in his professional character, in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination.
  • MCL 767.5a(2): Any communications between attorneys and their clients, between members of the clergy and the members of their respective churches, and between physicians and their patients are hereby declared to be privileged and confidential when those communications were necessary to enable the attorneys, members of the clergy, or physicians to serve as such attorney, member of the clergy, or physician.

TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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