Twenty-three years ago during Watergate, I learned the hard way that a prosecutor under pressure can be a dangerous man. A few weeks ago, Americans learned the same bitter lesson. An Oregon prosecutor under pressure may have driven another nail into the coffin of religious freedom. The case began six months ago when police in Springfield, Oregon, discovered the bodies of three teenagers near a logging camp. Police arrested a local man named Jonathan Susbauer. Susbauer confessed to the murders and implicated his friend, Conan Hale. Following his arrest, Hale, a Roman Catholic, asked to see a priest. Using telephone headsets through a plastic partition, the Rev. Timothy Mockaitis began hearing Hale's confession. As it turned out, the priest wasn't the only person listening. Springfield police officers--looking for an admission of murder--secretly taped Hale's confession. As the Times-Picayune observed, it was the first time in U.S. history that an arm of the government had bugged a Roman Catholic confession, hoping to use admission of sin as evidence of crime. Confession of sin is central to Christian life. For centuries, the laws of every civilized country have recognized--and protected--the confidentiality of the confessional. In America, clergy-penitent privacy is considered so essential to religious freedom that all 50 states have laws that protect it. Priests who break the secrecy of the confessional face ex-communication. But now the government has intruded into that sacred relationship. Oregon law allows jail conversations to be taped without the consent of those being recorded. Oregon prosecutors claim that since Conan Hale knew that jailhouse conversations are routinely bugged, he must have known his visit with his priest would be recorded. And now, in effect, Oregon prosecutors are saying that government will decide whether or not to respect the clergy-penitent privilege. When it became public that a private sacrament was being turned into state's evidence, a tidal wave of outrage swept all the way to the Vatican. Of course, everyone wants to see justice for the families of those three murdered kids. But there's far more at stake here than solving one crime, however heinous. Catholic legal scholar Michael Maslowsky called the taping "legal adventurism"--that would set a precedent that, Maslowsky warned, is "very dangerous, and not just for . . . Catholics." The Vatican considered the matter so serious that it asked the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican to seek to have the tape destroyed. Under this crush of public outrage, Springfield prosecutor Doug Harcleroad finally agreed not to use the tape in court and turned it over to a judge. But the Catholic Church is still demanding that the tape be destroyed--and the church is absolutely right to do so. That Oregon judge ought to come down firmly on the side of protecting private conversations between clergy and prisoners. Otherwise, the sanctity of the clergy-penitent relationship will be forever violated. It would be a major violation of prisoners' right to religious freedom. And the work of Christian ministries like Prison Fellowship will become much tougher. The heart of prison ministry is winning prisoners' trust. If inmates have to worry that their conversations with ministers are being taped, they'll reject the very programs that offer them their best chance to escape a life of crime. Clearly, Oregon prosecutors were unimaginably short-sighted to have even considered taping Hale's conversation with his priest. What they must understand--what we all must understand--is that a society that sacrifices religious freedom for "justice" will soon find that it has neither.


Chuck Colson


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