Breaking pastoral confidentiality

Pastor Neil Schori courtesy Fox News A pastor appeared on Fox network’s Greta Van Susteren show Monday, and revealed that the missing 4th wife of ex-cop Drew Peterson told him that Peterson admitted killing his 3rd wife. 

 Former Westbrook Christian Church pastor Neil Schori told “On the Record” that he was “reeling inside” after his conversation with Stacy Peterson over coffee in August.

— Fox News

So, here’s the question —

Would you appear on national media and reveal a conversation like this?

Courts have rule repeatedly that clergy-client conversations are privileged and confidential.  But do clergy have higher obligations to report such conversations and/or take action themselves?

Several years ago I was an associate at a large church.  A woman confided to the pastor that she was being abused and needed help.  The pastor helped her freeze the couple’s bank account, involved the police, and arranged a lawyer for the woman.  Sadly, the allegations were totally fabricated and the husband had to hire his own attorney to untangle the legal mess the pastor had put him in. 

What are our obligations and responsibilities in situations like this?  I’d welcome your comments. 

6 thoughts on “Breaking pastoral confidentiality”

  1. I am not a pastor, so take my comments for what they’re worth … (which might be nothing).

    If the guy himself had had this conversation, then it should be discussed with the police. Since Greta Van Sustern’s TV show isn’t a police interview, I would have avoided it.

    However, that’s information the police need.

    In this case, we’re talking hearsay. He heard from a woman who says that he said something. There’s a lot of room for ulterior motives here.

    I would refer to I Corinthians 5 on this one. That chapter is about sexual immorality, but I think it’s reasonable to apply the principle to murder, as well.

    Yes, I think that there is an obligation to turn over those who are committing crimes. If the pastor believes that he has something relevant to a current criminal act, then he should talk to the police. Covering it up doesn’t help worldly justice, or the spiritual health of the wrongdoer — and certainly not the church.

    HOWEVER … appearing on (inter)national TV to discuss it crosses other lines. I don’t think that feeding a media spectacle helps anyone.

  2. Wow. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, as something I said (as a staff member at a large church) to the Pastor regarding a ministry the church supports was then shared to Board members of the organization. Now my name looks like mud because he told somebody else. And this wasn’t even murder/sexual/etc!!!

    As for the news story, I can’t imagine going public with something like that. I’ve not heard anything about pastoral confidentiality in seminary, but I wish they would say something!

  3. I am a Virginia resident, pastoring in Moscow, Russia. My wife is qualifying for her Virginia counselor’s license.

    Two authorities must be considered:
    1) Biblical authority informing the relationship between pastor and family (husband and wife and children).
    2) State law.

    Virginia law requires licensed “counselors” to disclose certain information when others are endangers others. “Clergy” may have wider discretion. I don’t know Virginia law in this case.

    Did the featured pastor have to disclose?
    Probably. Because of presumed danger to the 4th wife.
    On national television?
    Then to whom?
    To appropriate legal enforcement or social services. With or without the consent of the 4th wife.

    What about the other described pastor?
    The pastor exceeded his authority and probably his competence. The woman should have been directed to an appropriate legal authority or specialist in abuse. Wife abuse is a very real problem, the pastor was right to take the woman’s complaint seriously, but he was wrong to assume the husband’s guilt.

    1) How did these pastors pray through this?
    2) What biblical guidelines did they consult?
    3) What counsel did they receive from their wives?
    4) What counsel did they receive from their own pastor?

  4. I think there are issues not only of confidentiality but also responsibility, which the other three comments seem to also be pointing out.
    I will talk about my own practice as a pastor and spiritual director because I think what I was encouraged to develop in seminary around this issue is good balanced, and addresses both situations you have presented in your post.
    There are levels of confidentiality and for those of us who do not come from traditions with rite of confession pastoral conversation can be blurry. For this reason if say I meet one of my parishoners in a coffee shop informally and a topic comes up that seems like the person is confiding in me I will want to clarify the expectation of confidentiality and/or the level of advice help the parishoner is seeking. If this informal meeting has turned to a confidential pastoral conversation I will not speak of it even to my wife. I am a deep believer in that as a pastor I am a guardian and shepherd of peoples souls and stories as such I have not right to talk about with others what they are unwilling to do so.

    If someone has sought me out made an appointment for a pastoral conversation or for Spiritual direction it goes without saying that what is said in that time stays in that room unless the person does so on her own.

    However, if someone is coming to me about relationships and conflict, even less severe than the examples given in this post I see it as my pastoral responsibility to inform the parishioner that based on the revelation I cannot simply be a passive listener that some action needs to be taken either by the parishioner or by us together. In that sense I move to support the person in what is needed health both of the person and community communities the person belongs to.
    In the first instance I probably would have encouraged the woman to talk to the authorities. If she felt that was not safe I would have explored other options with her and other pastors and colleagues whose experience and opinion I respect and value. Though going on national television does seem to be a violation of the trust of the pastoral relationship and seems to allow oneself as a pastor to be caught up in the media frenzie.

    In the second case, I agree with those who have posted who say that the pastor should not have taken on the role he did but should have directed the woman to those who are trained to deal with these instances while remaining in pastoral support of her as she went through. It also brings to mind that there is a form of healthy scepticism when dealing with people who come to one for pastoral conversation and reveal things about themselves. One needs to be discerning in what one believes. A pastor can do this without discounting what the person is saying. I imagine that if the pastor had responded instead of reacting (as it seems he did) by a little probing of the womans story of abuse he probably could have uncovered inconsistencies in her story.

    Pastoring is a risky, difficult, rewarding lonely endeavor, our lives are woven with people in ways few other professions are, it is why I shy from thinking of pastoring as a job or a profession. In some sense we should hold ourselves to higher standards than of the other helping professions, if we believe in the sacred nature of our call, and in the end going on television to talk about a pastoral conversation relevant to a sensational story seems more about a desire to be seen and known than consistent with the sacred calling and responsibility of being a pastor.

  5. Thanks to you all, and well-said by each. I think it is interesting that all your comments illuminated different aspects of this question — legal, personal, pastoral, and spiritual, to mention a few. This is a complex issue that reminds us as pastors, along with laity, that when people confide in us there are indeed responsibilities that are multi-layered and complex. Thanks for the thought in each of these comments. — Chuck

  6. I believe this Leader should of prayer for God’s guidance on the matter and encouraged the missing wife to speak up about what she was told. If she chose not to then he should of told the authorities and maybe the missing wife now would never come up missing.

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