Court Shields Priest's Admissions
By Robert Schwaneberg
The Star-Ledger [Newark, New Jersey]
November 18, 1998
In a decision that upholds the sanctity of the confessional, a state appeals court ruled yesterday that two brothers who claim they were sexually abused by a former Catholic priest three decades ago are not entitled to learn what he confessed to his spiritual adviser.
But the appeals court also ruled that routine personnel files on the former priest, Michael Campanalonga, must be turned over to the lawyer for Thomas and Michael Corsie. Now grown, they contend they were molested by Campanalonga, then an assistant pastor at St. Anthony's Church in Northvale, about the time that Thomas was 5 and Michael was 14.
A judgment was entered against Campanalonga after he failed to defend himself. The brothers' case now centers on the Archdiocese of Newark, which they accuse of carelessly failing to supervise its priests. To prove their case, they sought the archdiocese's records on Campanalonga, including records maintained by the Vicar of Priests.
The archdiocese resisted, stating "the Vicar of Priests serves as a confidant to priests in need." Requiring the church to turn over such records "would completely undermine the function of the Vicar of Priests for all present and future priests as they could never rely on the confidentiality of their consultations with the Vicar," according to a statement submitted by Bishop Paul Bootkoski.
Yesterday, a three-judge appeals court unanimously ruled that anything a priest tells the vicar that is intended to remain confidential is privileged and need not be turned over. The judges noted that in 1994, the Legislature strengthened the law protecting the sanctity of confessions to a cleric, adding that the relationship between priest and vicar "is the same as a confessional matter with any other penitent."
But the judges also said "not every document in the vicar's file is necessarily privileged," adding the trial judge should inspect the file in private and make an item-by-item determination as to which documents were "communications made in confidence."
It also rejected the archdiocese's argument that the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion shielded it from having to turn over Campanalonga's personnel files.
"The maintenance of personnel files, generally speaking, is nothing more than a normal administrative procedure of any organization, whether it is religious or secular," Presiding Appellate Division Judge James Havey wrote. He was joined in his opinion by Judges Paul G. Levy and Arthur Lesemann.
Campanalonga was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to undergo psychological evaluation after the brothers' allegations came to the archdiocese's attention in 1993. He later moved to Florida.
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