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.