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Should a Florida man's church confession be evidence in a criminal case?

Dan Sullivan, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

CLEARWATER, Fla. — One day a little more than three years ago, a man gripped a microphone as he stood before a stage inside a Pinellas County church and told his pastor and parish leaders he was sorry for what he’d done to the pastor’s 12-year-old granddaughter.

Juan Martin Gonzalez said that he’d sinned. He apologized. He vowed to “face the situation.”

People in the crowd demanded more. God wouldn’t forgive him, they said, unless he said exactly what he’d done wrong.

Gonzalez kept talking. His words were captured on video. The video was later shared with police.

After Gonzalez was charged with lewd and lascivious molestation, his lawyers asked that the video be tossed as evidence. What it showed, they said, was a religious confession from a man who sought spiritual guidance. His words, they argued, were protected under a legal concept known as clergy-penitent privilege, which bars the disclosure of a person’s communications with a religious adviser.

A trial judge agreed. But an appeals court late last month overturned the judge’s decision. It ordered further proceedings in the case, which has raised difficult questions about the law, religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

 

The allegations surfaced in November 2020. One night that month, the girl told her family that Gonzalez had kissed her and touched her breasts while they were alone together in a car. He was 57. They attended the same Hispanic church in Pinellas County. Her grandfather, uncle and mother all learned what had happened.

The girl, her family members and the church are not identified by name in court records.

Her grandfather was the church pastor. He went to Gonzalez’s house to discuss with him what had happened. He later sought advice about what to do from a church “apostle” in Mexico, who had experience dealing with a similar situation, according to court records.

The pastor decided to hold a meeting about the allegations with the church’s leaders. They were a group that took care of various responsibilities like prayer, music, dance and sports. Gonzalez and his wife were among them. He coached basketball.

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