Must Your Pastor Rat You Out?

What if you have a drug habit? What if you’ve killed somebody and need help?  What if you’re a child abuser?  If you tell your pastor about it, does he have to be a snitch in court if he is subpoenaed? In fact, is it mandatory for him to report any child abuse situations to the Department of Human Services even if he does not have to appear in court?  Does he have to turn you in to the DEA if you tell him that you are a drug runner?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions it could certainly affect your relationship with your pastor and your ability to get help. Do you know the answers in Maine? (Caution: They differ by state, so if you’re not from Maine, the answers may not be the same where you live.)

If you make an appointment with your pastor or speak to him privately, and you disclose information that could incriminate you, you are protected by something known as minister-penitent privilege.  It is similar to client-attorney privilege. Just as your lawyer cannot be forced to repeat what you have told him in confidence, your pastor cannot be forced to repeat what you have told him in confidence. And I won’t do it voluntarily, either.

Some people mistakenly think that this privilege does not apply to child abuse, and that the pastor must immediately rat you out to the Department of Human Services.  That is not true in Maine.  If you are getting counsel from your pastor, he is NOT required to tell anyone anything even if subpoenaed to appear in court.  He may tell the court that he will not divulge the contents of confidential counseling conversations – and that is what I would do.

These laws were probably passed because the lawmakers realized that ministers can help deter crime by dealing with those who commit it.  After all, if the minister has to turn you in, nobody will go to a minister for help!

However, you should be aware that minister-penitent privilege only covers private conversations with a minister from whom you are seeking spiritual counsel. It does not apply to members of the congregation.  So you would probably not want to give a testimony in church that says, "With the Lord's help, I only ran half as many drugs for the Mob this week!" or “I’ve only beaten my wife twice this week instead of nightly!”

Certainly, child abuse is evil, and if you are indulging in it, you need help. Please note, however, that I do not consider spanking to be child abuse if done within reason; the Bible encourages reasonable corporal punishment in Proverbs.  I understand that government agencies do not always feel the same way, but there are too many “time-out terrors” running around whose posteriors have never seen a wooden spoon. The Bible says that if you spare the rod (of correction), you spoil the child.  (That’s God’s opinion, not Pastor Steve’s private opinion, so if you have a problem with that, ask God to revise the Bible with a Release 2.0 that has verses like that removed.  Until then, the Bible you have is the last word on doctrine and conduct for Christians.) Remember at all times that spanking is correction, not retaliation or you venting your frustration on Junior. Those wrong motives do lead to child abuse. However, discipline that does not leave marks or damage and simply smarts for a few moments is not evil when done in a proper attitude of love – that you are doing if for the child’s good.  (You’re not just getting even with Little Brattany for a five-minute screamfest at the Toys R Us when you wouldn’t buy her a Harry Potter magic wand and she embarrassed you in front of the whole store by repeating all the cuss words she ever heard in the movies you shouldn’t have let her see.)

If you need help in any area, you can get it in confidence without fear that I will have to report you to DHS or the local police.  In the long run, everyone is better off, because the state and their programs can’t do for you what Jesus and the Word of God can do for you!  You can get help and Maine will be a better place for it.