A Guide to the Clergy & Penitent Privilege

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Charlie Cutler

President of ChurchWest Insurance Services


As a pastor or spiritual counselor, you play an integral role in providing faith based guidance to your congregants. Because of the nature of your work, you may come face to face with tragic confessions. These confessions may even bring legal consequences. In this guide, we’ll discuss the Clergy / Penitent Privilege, and some of the legal protections you enjoy as a minister.

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An Overview of Clergy / Penitent Privilege

The Clergy-Penitent Privilege is a legal protection that safeguards certain confidential communications between a member of the clergy and a congregant. Essentially, this privilege allows clergy members to keep specific conversations private and exempts clergy-members from a legal obligation to testify the contents of those conversations in court or other legal proceedings.

The Clergy-Penitent Privilege exists to encourage open and honest communication between individuals and their spiritual advisors. By ensuring that these conversations can be kept confidential, the privilege fosters trust and allows congregants to seek guidance without fear of their personal information being shared or used against them.

Confidentiality vs Privilege

Confidentiality and Privilege are two related but distinct concepts when it comes to communication and the law. To understand the Clergy / Penitent Privilege, it helps to understand the difference between these two concepts:

  • Confidentiality: This is a type of communication where a party in a communication has an expectation of privacy and trust. When communication is confidential, it is generally understood that the information will not be shared with anyone else without the consent of the person who disclosed it. For example, if a man discloses to his pastor that he is involved in an affair, and the pastor then reveals this information to the congregation, the man might accuse the pastor of breaching confidentiality.
  • Privilege: This refers to a legal protection that protects certain types of communication from being disclosed in legal proceedings. When invoking privilege, the party is enforcing confidentiality by refusing to testify in court. Privilege exists to protect certain relationships, such as those between an attorney and client or a doctor and patient, by not forcing the disclosure of certain confidential information in court.

While all privileged communication is confidential, not all confidential communication is privileged. Remember, privilege is not an absolute protection and may be subject to exceptions or limitations in certain situations.

Applying the Privilege

While the exact requirements of the Clergy-Penitent Privilege vary by state and juridstiction, there are certain guidelines that generally apply. 

  1. Communication must be made in confidence: For the privilege to apply, the communication must be intended to be confidential and made with the expectation that it will not be disclosed to anyone else. This means that if the person making the communication does not believe it to be confidential or if they intended for it to be disclosed to others, the privilege may not apply.

  2. Communication must be made to a member of clergy: The communication must be made to a member of the clergy, which includes priests, ministers, rabbis, or other religious figures. The person seeking spiritual counseling must reasonably believe that the person they are speaking to is a member of the clergy.

  3. Clergy must have a religious duty to keep such communication secret: The member of the clergy who receives the communication must have a religious duty to keep it secret. This means that the clergy member must be acting in a spiritual capacity when they receive the communication, and that their religious beliefs and practices require them to keep such communications confidential. 

It’s important to note that the specific requirements for the privilege can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the type of relationship involved. Additionally, the privilege may not apply in certain situations, such as cases involving child abuse or other serious crimes. In California, clergy members are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse, and the privilege may not apply in such cases.

For a deeper dive, check out our co-hosted webinar with Bob Brockman from BWB Law and Leslie DeMattia from ChurchHRNetwork.

Types of Ministry Scenarios

Ministers often find themselves in situations where the confidentiality with their congregants is essential. Here are a few scenarios where the privilege may be applied or brought into question:

  1. Criminal Confession: A person confesses to their pastor that they have committed a serious crime, such as murder. Later, the police come to the pastor and ask them about the confession. 

  2. Domestic Abuse: A woman seeks spiritual counseling from her Pastor and discloses that she has been the victim of domestic abuse. Later, the woman files for divorce and the husband sues for custody of their children. The pastor is called upon to provide testimony about the woman’s confession about domestic abuse. 

  3. Theft Confession: A man confesses to his pastor that he has a gambling addiction and has been embezzling money from his employer. The employer later discovers the theft and presses charges. Can the pastor invoke the privilege to refuse to testify about the confession?

  4. Sexual Identity: A teenager seeks counseling from their youth pastor and discloses that they are struggling with their sexual identity. The parents of the teenager later find out about the counseling sessions and demand that the youth pastor tell them what was discussed. Can the youth pastor invoke the privilege to refuse to disclose the confidential information?

These scenarios illustrate the types of complex issues that can arise when the Clergy-Penitent Privilege is invoked. It is important for ministers to understand the requirements for the privilege to apply, as well as the potential exceptions or limitations to the privilege. In addition, ministers must navigate the ethical considerations of confidentiality and the pastoral duties of care for their congregants.

Insurance Coverage

Providing spiritual counseling is a core aspect of ministry, and the complexities of privilege and confidentiality only add increase the potential liability that can arise. Mismanaging counseling can lead to claims of breach of confidentiality, emotional injury and even personal injury claims.

To protect your ministry, it’s important to carry the right insurance coverage. Counseling Liability Insurance can provide coverage for allegations of breach of confidentiality, emotional injury and personal injury claims that arise from your counseling acts. 

When discussing insurance options with your carrier or broker, make sure you consider the full breadth of counseling offered by your team. You should review your counseling procedures, and discuss additional coverage if your engage in lay counseling or fee based counseling. 


The Clergy-Penitent Privilege is a fundamental legal doctrine for enforcing the relationship of a minister with a counselee. As a minister or spiritual advisor, it is important to be aware of the privilege and to understand how it can impact your interactions with those seeking your guidance. By providing a safe and confidential environment for counseling, you can help your congregants feel comfortable seeking your spiritual guidance, while also protecting your organization from potential liability.


Charlie Cutler

Charlie Cutler is the President of ChurchWest Insurance Services, a California-based agency that specializes in providing insurance solutions to churches and related ministries. Charlie has been with ChurchWest for over 20 years and has extensive experience in the insurance industry, with a particular focus on the unique risks and challenges facing Christian organizations. Charlie is a sought-after speaker and has presented at numerous conferences and seminars on insurance and risk management topics.

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