Every day, people approach the priest to confess their sins. This ritual, peculiar to Christians of the Roman Catholic Church, is in fulfillment of the biblical injunction for Christians to confess their sins to one another. Confession to a priest most times involves both moral and legal violations. People who engage in fornication or other acts of the flesh approach priests for their moral wrongs. Additionally, those who may have committed crimes such as murder, stealing, and rape also approach the priest to tender their confessions for what they have done and sometimes for what they intend to do.
Does the priest owe a legal duty under Nigerian law to report criminals and their offenses? If yes, can such evidence be admitted and listened to by the court to secure convictions? This article will examine the admissibility of confessions and privileged communication to a priest by the Nigerian court and explore possible exceptions.
Confession to A priest and Its Legal Implications
According to Cambridge Dictionary Confession is the act of admitting that you have done something wrong or illegal. In fulfillment of their religious obligations, Christians often approach the priest to confess their wrongs. The priest is morally bound by the seal of confession, which is built on the foundation of utmost secrecy. The priest owes a duty to the penitent and the Roman Catholic Church to keep whatever is shared in confidence. This duty is outlined in Canon 983.1, which unequivocally condemns the priest from revealing information given in the context of confession, regardless of the gravity of the offense or whether the crime was committed against the priest personally. because it is presumed that during confession, you are making such confession to God and not the priest.
Due to the recent incidents of people committing the offense of defilement and other serious Sexual offenses uncovered under the seal of secrecy, the new guideline is that priests should deny absolution for such sins and ensure that those who have committed a serious offense turn themselves into the police. It is not for the priest to do the reporting, as he remains bound by the seal of confession. The individual seeking penance cannot be compelled to surrender themselves, but they can be obligated to prevent another person from bearing the consequences of their wrongdoing.
When the penitent confesses to a priest about their intention to commit an offense, the priest should try to convince the penitent to refrain from continuing the crime in question. The priest owes a moral duty to alert the police about the person’s intention to carry out the offense without providing details or clues as to where such information was obtained.
However, a priest who decides to betray a penitent by reporting a privileged confession to the authorities must tender his resignation to the Pope in defiance of canon law which carries the punishment of excommunication. Upon the report of the priest, the police will effect an arrest and possibly charge the accused person for the alleged crime.
The legal question that the police would be faced with answering in court is whether a confessional statement gotten under privileged communication to a priest is admissible.
The Nigerian court only admits documents and evidence that are relevant and admissible as seen in the case of Bayol v Ahemba (1999). Confessional Statements Relevant to a case are admissible under Nigerian Law. Section 28 of the Evidence Act 2011 defined confession as an admission made at any time by a person charged with a crime, stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime. Section 31 of the Act further provides that
“if a confession is otherwise relevant. it does not become irrelevant merely because it was made under a promise of secrecy. or in consequence of a deception practiced on the defendant for the purpose of obtaining it or when he was drunk, or because it was made ill answer to questions which he need not have answered, whatever may have been the form of these questions. or because he was not warned that he was not bound to make such statement and that evidence of it might be given.”
Section 14 of the Evidence Act 2011 that provides Evidence obtained improperly or in violation of a law, or as a result of impropriety or contravention of a law, is admissible unless the court believes that the benefits of admitting the evidence are outweighed by the drawbacks of admitting evidence obtained through the same manner in which it was acquired. This means improperly obtained evidence is admitted solely by the discretion of the court.
Persons privileged under the law cannot be compelled to give evidence in court. In Ahamba V State (1992) 5 NWLR (Pt. 242) 450, states as follows:
“Generally, a witness who is competent and compellable to testify may, in certain cases, refuse to answer particular questions on relevant matters on the ground of public policy or privilege.”
Section 192(1) of the Evidence Act 2011 establishes a protective provision for lawyers, preventing them from being forced to disclose any communication with their clients. Rule 1 of Professional Conduct further safeguards lawyers, ensuring that they cannot be compelled to provide information on privileged communication, as evidenced in the case of Even v Okoro. Additionally,
In the context of doctor-patient confidentiality, a doctor cannot be compelled to give evidence against a patient. In Hunter v. Mann (1974) QB 767, Justice Boreham emphasized that a doctor has a duty not to disclose, voluntarily and without the patient’s consent, information obtained in a professional capacity. Nigerian law recognizes various qualified and absolute privileges to protect such confidential communications.
One may argue that priests and penitents are covered by privileged communication. However, there is no legal provision in the Evidence Act of 2011 safeguarding the communication between priests and penitents, and this is not recognized as a legal privilege under Nigerian law. Such interactions are common between a Roman Catholic priest and members of the religious community, often involving confessions of offenses, both minor and relatively serious. Although there is a prevailing perspective that, strictly speaking, legal privilege does not apply, the consensus is that a priest should not be compelled to testify about confessions made to them.
In the case of R v. Griffin (1853) 6 Cox CC 219, a chaplain from the Church of England, serving in a workhouse, was summoned to testify about conversations with a prisoner accused of child murder. The chaplain claimed to have visited the prisoner in a spiritual capacity. The judge, Baron of the Exchequer Sir Edward Hall Alderson, strongly suggested to the counsel that he believed such conversations should not be presented as evidence. He remarked that there was a similarity between the need for privilege in the case of an attorney to facilitate the presentation of legal evidence and that in the case of a clergyman to facilitate the provision of spiritual assistance. While not establishing it as an absolute rule, he expressed his opinion that such evidence should generally not be admitted.
In 1823, during the trial of R v. Redford before Chief Justice William Draper Best, 1st Baron Wynford, on the circuit, a Church of England clergyman was about to present a confession of guilt made by the prisoner. The judge intervened, expressing his strong disapproval and asserting that it was inappropriate for a clergyman to disclose a confession.
However, the situation is different in Nigeria. If a clergyman willingly chooses to disclose information obtained under the promise of secrecy, the court would consider the provisions of sections 14 and 31 of the Evidence Act, which address evidence improperly obtained and evidence obtained under the promise of secrecy. In such a scenario, the court has absolute discretion to determine whether or not to admit such evidence, and this decision is contingent on the nature of the case and the evidence presented before the court.
in The Nigerian Case of JOHN APOSI V. THE STATE CITATION: (1972) LPELR-SC.6/1971 Two key witnesses, Seidu Parakoyi, a Muslim priest, and Amusa Otenuga, a farmer (6th P.W.), provided crucial testimony against the appellant in a murder trial. Seidu Parakoyi stated that the appellant confessed to killing Yesiratu and sought his help in concealing the crime through special Koranic prayers. Similarly, Amusa Otenuga, present during the confession, corroborated the appellant’s admission to the Muslim priest. The investigating police officer, Sunday Rufai (8th P.W.), described the arrest of the appellant after discovering Yesiratu’s body in the bush with machete cuts on the skull. The accused was sentenced to death on the testimony of the Muslim Priest even when the confession was made under the promise of Secrecy.
Where a priest decides to testify on a statement obtained under the promise of secrecy, there would be no hindrance under Nigerian Law from admitting such evidence although improperly obtained.
People should not use the cloak of secrecy to evade punishment or let innocent individuals bear the consequences of their actions. Regardless of religious practices, evidence presented by clergy, obtained under the promise of secrecy and corroborated, should be admissible in court. However, I am of the opinion that priests, though not shielded by any form of privilege, should not be compelled to testify in court, regardless of the crime and evidence presented that implicates them as witnesses to a confession made by a penitent. And with that.
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