When Confession Stood Trial

“A priest comes to the confessional in a parish church, a jail cell or a hospital bedside not as a judge and jury, but as a pastor of souls.

“The actions of the state, and the response of the Archdiocese of Portland, set up a never-before-test of the American Constitution. I felt state authorities had backed themselves into an untenable legal corner.”

So says Father Timothy Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Church in Salem, Ore., recalling the precedent-setting case he was involved in more than a decade ago when the state of Oregon sought to break the seal of confession with respect to a sacramental confession by an inmate the Catholic priest heard on April 22, 1996. The confession was secretly taped, without permission, by prison authorities.

In an interview published yesterday by Zenit, Father Mockaitis discusses the case, which he recounts in detail in his new book, The Seal: A Priest’s Story.

Ultimately, the state lost its case and the court battle over inmate Conan Wayne Hale’s confession served to strengthen constitutional protection of the sanctity of disclosures made during sacramental confession. But as Father Mockaitis notes at the conclusion of the Zenit interview, the threat of state encroachment on this fundamental religious freedom remains very real.

ZENIT: What happened to the tape recording of Hale’s confession? Was it ever used in evidence or destroyed?

Father Mockaitis: Despite the state authorities’ and the district attorney’s promise at that time that the tape would be destroyed after the murder trial of the inmate, the tape still exists to this very day.

The ultimate finding of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that this action was a blatant violation of the First and Fourth Amendment made the action of this taping illegal.

Although it was never played during the trial of the inmate, the tape was not destroyed a year after the appeals court issued its opinion in January of 1997.

For what purpose does it remain more than 10 years since the inmate’s trial?

It remains a red flag of warning for all those who treasure our First Amendment protections.