Mich. court to consider clergy privilege

Feb. 9, 2012 at 4:00 AM
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DETROIT, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- A Michigan appellate court Thursday will take up the question whether a person's confession to his pastor can be used against him in court.

A three-member panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case involving a Baptist minister in Belleville who testified against a church member in a rape case.

"This is a very dangerous case because it could have very serious repercussions for religion," the rape suspect's attorney, Raymond Cassar of Farmington Hills, told the Detroit Free Press. "If a pastor is allowed to testify against a member of his church about privileged communications, no one will want to confess their sins to their pastors anymore."

But a prosecutor in the case says the pastor didn't abuse the clergy-penitent privilege when he told police a teen admitted raping a 9-year-old girl.

The meeting between the Rev. John Vaprezsan and Samuel D. Bragg -- accused of raping the girl during a sleepover at his home in 2007, when he was 15 -- "was done to ascertain whether the victim was telling the truth, not for the purpose of spiritual guidance," Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Teri Odette maintains in court documents ahead of the oral arguments.

Bragg's 2009 confession was also not confidential, she argued, because his mother was there, and the meeting had nothing to do with church discipline or spiritual guidance, the Free Press said.

In addition, Vaprezsan, of Metro Baptist Church, didn't claim confessional privilege and stated under oath he had a duty to tell the victim, her family and police what he had learned.

Vaprezsan testified it didn't violate Baptist doctrine.

But Bragg attorney Raymond Cassar said Vaprezsan had been Bragg's pastor since he was 5, and the teen and his mother took for granted they were being summoned to the church office for privileged spiritual counseling, the Free Press said.

Cassar said the meeting was conducted in a spiritual manner and ended with Vaprezsan, Bragg and his mother praying together.

Bragg is free on bond, pending trial on a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child younger than 13.

The charge carries a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.

The case started after the unidentified girl confided to her mother in 2009 about the alleged assault. The mother told Vaprezsan, who interrogated Bragg and gave a statement to Belleville police, the Free Press said.

A lower court ordered Bragg to stand trial, but Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway of Michigan's 3rd Circuit Court tossed Vaprezsan's testimony, saying it violated Michigan's clergy-penitent privilege.

State law says clergy people are not required to disclose confessions made to them in their professional capacity.

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