A Florida appeals court recently said an Orlando priest doesn’t have to testify about what a local woman told him about being sexually abused when she was younger. The decision by the Fifth District Court of Appeal attempts to draw a line between prosecutors’ needs in Florida sex crime cases and religious protections under state law.
An Orlando man in 2017 was charged with four counts of sex crimes against a minor. Police initially launched an investigation after a 17-year-old girl told her mother that the man had abused her when she was between the ages of seven and 13. State prosecutors signaled ahead of trial that they intended to introduce out-of-court statements that the victim allegedly had made to a local Catholic priest when she was 15 years old. They said the girl disclosed to the priest that she had been abused while performing the rite of confession.
The priest didn’t want to testify, however. He asked a court to issue a protective order to keep him from being hauled into court. The priest argued that being forced to disclose the conversation would violate the “sacred seal of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation.” As a result, he argued that dragging him into court to blab about the discussion would violate his religious freedom rights under First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also said it would violate the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act (FRFRA).
Prosecutors countered that the victim’s statements to the priest were the only thing they had to corroborate what she would say in court about the alleged abuse. They also argued that the victim waived any privilege to protect the privacy of the conversation and that the priest had done the same by acknowledging to the victim’s mother that the victim had told him about the abuse. The trial judge eventually sided with prosecutors. He ruled that the priest could be forced to testify about “the existence of the confession, the identity of the penitent, and that the subject matter involved sexual abuse.” He could not, however, be forced to talk about any other matter that he discussed with the victim, the judge said.
Overturning the decision on appeal, the Fifth District said the judge’s ruling violated the FRFRA. The court explained that the law bars a government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion “unless the government demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
Although the State had a compelling interest in enforcing child sex abuse laws, the court said prosecutors didn’t show that forcing the priest to testify was the “least restrictive means” of advancing that interest. It noted that the priest was not an eye witness to any alleged abuse and said the victim would be able to testify herself in court.
“The alleged victim in this case is now an adult, and there is nothing in the record that suggests that she would be unable to testify as to the relevant events,” the court said.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. Clearwater sex crime attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.