The traditional legal doctrine protecting privileged conversations between clergy and penitent has prevented the government from forcing the cleric to divulge information gained in a faith setting. But what if the opposite happens and the religious belief of the pastor requires the disclosure of information that the supplicant would find embarrassing or hurtful? That’s the case now before the Texas Supreme Court.
The pastor of a nondeminational church, who also happens to be a licensed professional counselor, revealed a church member’s adultery and divorce plans to the entire church and said they should shun her as punishment. Now the woman, Peggy Lee Penley is suing C.L. Westbrook for defamation and negligence.
While courts have long held that religious practices and discipline are immune from court review under a legal doctrine known as “ecclesiastical abstention,” secular misconduct by religious figures is not automatically protected.
Ms. Penley’s lawyer, Darrell L. Keith of Dallas, told the court that the issue was simply a matter of professional negligence by a counselor.
“She believed that she was talking to him in a confidential setting as her secular marital counselor, not as her pastor,” Mr. Keith said. “And she didn’t believe she was at risk.”
Mr. Westbrook’s lawyer, Kelly J. Shackelford, told the judges that Ms. Penley “obviously knew what she signed on for” and that the court was being asked to enter “the internal processes of the church,” where it did not belong.
Why would a Catholic defend this pastor?