Monday, November 28, 2011

Gunn instructs church officials to keep quiet about sex abuse, claims “priest privilege”

Lost in many of the news articles hailing Philip Gunn’s triumphal entry as Speaker of the House are the sex abuse allegations leveled at Gunn’s former minister, John Langworthy.  In the months following the arrest of the former Morrison Heights Baptist Church music minister, Gunn has served as the church’s attorney, spokesperson, and elder.  This would seem enough hats for a man who is also mounting a speaker’s campaign but last week, Gunn added another, clergyman. 

In an article published Tuesday and updated over the weekend, Ross Adams of WJTV reported that Gunn has instructed elders at the Clinton, Mississippi church not to discuss what they learned during a recent church initiated interview with Langworthy.  When asked if this was the proper course of action for a person who has championed mandatory reporting of all alleged sexual abuse, Gunn bristled, “What I’m telling you is that the elders are bound by privilege under the law there’s a legal privilege that attaches.”

The privilege Gunn is referring to comes from Mississippi Rule of Evidence 505 which is otherwise known as the “Priest-Penitent Privilege”.  The heart of the rule is found in subsection b which reads, “A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in his professional character as a spiritual adviser.” 

The first problem with Gunn’s invocation of this rule is that the rules of evidence deal with the admission of items at trial and should not be used to shield individuals from providing information to the proper authorities when a child has been victimized or is in danger.  Second, by his comments, Gunn has effectively elevated his, and his fellow elder’s, status to that of “clergyman”. 

The Rules of Evidence define “clergyman” as “a minister, priest, rabbi or other similar functionary of a church, religious organization, or religious denomination”.  The comment section provides further guidance for determining whether a person should be considered a clergyman.  It says in part, “It is fair to say that the term refers to clergy who are regularly engaged in activities of established denominations.  It is not broad enough to include all sorts of ‘self-denominated ministers’”.  Webster’s defines “clergyman” as “a member of the clergy”.

Mississippi courts have addressed the question of whether communications to elders or deacons fall under the protections of 505.  In a 2007 case, Banks v. State, an inmate claimed the privilege for conversations he had with a church deacon who participated in prison ministry.  The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that the deacon was “not acting in the role of minister within the plain meaning of the rule”.

Towards the end of the WJTV story, Adams reports that the Hinds County District Attorney’s office is considering issuing a subpoena to compel Gunn and others to disclose the details of their private discussions with Langworthy.  Given Gunn's improper application of 505 in criminal investigations and the narrow application of the privilege to members of the clergy, here’s betting that the court agrees that this conversation and any others that the accused might have had with self-denominated ministers at Morrison Heights warrant review.


bill said...

Or it could simply be a pro bono lawyer advising church members to not say anything to the media, which is usually good advice. I haven't kept up with this case, but Langworthy hasn't been accused of anything in Mississippi, has he? It's normal for an entity - even a church - to want to protect itself for liability reasons, and the best way to do this is to funnel all public comments through a single person. All the prosecutor has to do is issue a subpoena if he wants to challenge their privilege. Philip Gunn is just being a good lawyer. Bill Billingsley

JonAltman said...

Since when does a Baptist church have "elders"? In Southern Baptist churches the week-to-week governing is done by the "Board of Deacons," which reports to the congregation as a whole in a (usually) monthly "business meeting."

Anderson said...

Gunn should follow his own advice and keep his mouth shut; his response to the reporter should have been "No comment."

mississippi citizen said...

You all are missing the point. The story reported that LAW ENFORCEMENT wanted to interview the elders and Gunn prevented it.

JudyJones said...

Hopefully others who may have knowledge or been harmed by Langworthy. will have the courage to speak up and report it to police.
Keep in mind your silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.

Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511
"Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests" and all clergy.

Kingfish said...

So much for an attorney representing his client.

I'm quite sure cotton, I could pull out some defenses you made of murderers, rapists, and the like.

Cottonmouth said...


I've never advised witnesses not to speak with law enforcement when they did not have criminal liability. (I tell everyone with potential exposure to invoke their 5th Amendment right to silence, and more importantly, their 6th Amendment right to counsel.)

That being said, your comment does nothing to address the issue, which is the Republican choice for Speaker stonewalling officials attempting to uncover potential sex abuse in Clinton.

Cottonmouth said...

Bill, yes, Langworthy has been indicted in Hinds County for his alleged molestation of young boys back in the 80's. His trial is set for April of 2012.

With respect to Gunn's advice, it's not Gunn telling the church members to not talk to the media. He told his fellow elders, the ones who conducted the church's investigation, not to talk to law enforcement.

And it's my understanding that the subpoenas you mention are forthcoming.

bill said...

Thanks, Matt. I wasn't sure about the Mississippi part. I still think it's a lawyer trying to do his best to keep his clients from saying something that could somehow incriminate the church. Since I'm not an attorney I'm not sure how the doctrine of "priestly privilege" works, but it's the job of any attorney to try to protect his client, and there are plenty of obscure defenses that are used every day toward this end. BB