By David M. Gower. Posted with permission from Baptist Bulletin May/June 2012. All rights reserved.
People expect a lot from a pastor—including standing up for justice and helping those in need. But they also expect him to provide confidential spiritual guidance. So what happens when these expectations collide? What happens when a pastor learns that someone he is counseling has committed a crime? To whom does the pastor owe his loyalty: the person being counseled, or the victim of the crime? These questions are at the center of a rape case now pending in a Michigan court of appeals that will set precedent in Michigan and could have ramifications nationwide.
John Vaprezsan is the pastor of Metro Baptist Church, an independent Baptist church in Belleville, Mich. In 2009, reports USA Today, a woman in the church told Vaprezsan that her daughter had been raped by Samuel Bragg, a teenager who also attended Metro Baptist. The girl was just 9 years old at the time of the assault.
After hearing this disturbing news, Vaprezsan asked Bragg and his mother to meet him at the church. Vaprezsan claims that at the meeting Bragg confessed to sexually assaulting the girl. Later Vaprezsan gave a statement to police and Bragg was charged with first-degree criminal sexual assault. But Bragg and his mother deny making any confession.
Knowing that his testimony would be vital to the case, Vaprezsan agreed to testify in court about the details of Bragg’s confession. However, the trial judge ruled that Vaprezsan’s testimony was inadmissible because it would violate Michigan’s clergy privilege statute, which states,
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.1
The prosecutor appealed the trial judge’s decision to the Michigan court of appeals, which has not issued its ruling as of this writing.2