Christian Legal Society Panel Looks at Cleric-Penitent Privilege
Web Editor - Published: March 31, 2011
“The piercing of the privilege would fracture the trust between the penitent and the priest,” said the Reverend John S. Grimm ’93, speaking as part of a panel discussion entitled “Priest-Penitent Privilege: Balancing Confession with Justice,” on Thursday, March 31st, 2011 in the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom.

Sponsored by the Delaware campus student chapter of the Christian Legal Society, the discussion featured Widener Law Professor and Taishoff Advocacy, Technology and Public Service Institute Director John F. Nivala, Reverend Grimm, and Janice Rowe Tigani, a deputy attorney general with the Delaware Department of Justice.

Associate Professor Kathleen M. Turezyn, the Christian Legal Society advisor and the moderator for the panel, provided a welcome and introduction before turning the floor over to Professor Nivala, who gave an overview of the historical and legal underpinnings of the privilege. The priest-penitent privilege - sometimes referred to as the clergy privilege or the clergy-penitent privilege - "grew out of the sanctity of the confessional in the Catholic Church."

Professor Nivala noted that every state in the country has some form of clergy-penitent privilege, and that there are a number of difficulties in defining the terms and what they mean. “What is the extent of the privilege afforded – what does it cover?” he asked. “Who can invoke this? Who can be compelled to disclose? Who can waive it?” He closed his remarks by looking at how a New Jersey case had expanded the privilege in that state to include temporal advice given by a cleric.

Reverend Grimm then talked about the theological reasons for the privilege and the theology behind the confession of sins. He also discussed “the general duty of confidentiality” that spiritual advisors have toward their charges. “The confessor can urge the penitent to turn themselves in,” he noted, and he mentioned that priests are trained to do so in the case of crimes that are regarded has having high rates of recidivism such as child sexual abuse.

Tigani, who serves as General Counsel to the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth & Their Families, discussed mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect in Delaware. She also discussed the clergy-penitent privilege, noting, “In Delaware, there was no privilege until 1997 for anything other than lawyer-client privilege.”

The Reverend John Grimm graduated from Boston College and earned his J.D. from Widener Law in 1993. In 2002, he completed his M.Div. at the Theological College of The Catholic University of America. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Wilmington and appointed a Bioethics Spokesman for the diocese. In 2007, he earned an S.T.L. with a concentration in Moral Theology from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Seton Hall University.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Janice Rowe Tigani earned her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law. She served as a Deputy Attorney General for the Delaware Department of Justice for fourteen years before working in private practice until July of 2009, when she returned to the Delaware Department of Justice.