Priest shielded from testifying in sexual abuse case

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Pointing to a state religious-freedom law, an appeals court has shielded a priest from testifying about his discussion with a teenage girl during the Catholic sacrament of confession about the girl being sexual abused.

The ruling Friday by a panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal in an Orange County case sided with priest Vincenzo Ronchi, who argued that the Catholic Church bars priests from disclosing any aspects of communications during confession -- more formally known as the sacrament of reconciliation -- and that disclosure could even lead to excommunication from the church.

Prosecutors subpoenaed Ronchi to testify in the case of Loren Tim Burton, who was charged last year with committing sexual offenses against a minor when she was 7 years old and 13 years old. The alleged victim, prosecutors said, told Ronzi during confession when she was 15 years old that she had been sexually abused.

The criminal investigation began after the alleged victim, at age 17, told her mother about the abuse, the appeals-court ruling said.

Orange County Circuit Judge John Marshall Kest ruled that Ronchi could be questioned about the limited issues of “the existence of the confession, the identity of the penitent (the alleged victim), and that the subject matter involved sexual abuse,” the appeals court ruling said. Kest’s ruling focused, at least in part, on a conversation that Ronchi had with the teen’s mother and a friend of the mother and whether that waived “privilege” that otherwise could keep the priest from being required to testify.

But the appeals court overturned Kest’s order, pointing to a state law known as the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which seeks to prevent the government from burdening the exercise of religion unless it can show a “compelling governmental interest” and that the government action is the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” the ruling said.

The appeals court acknowledged that the state “has a compelling governmental interest in prosecuting sex offenses perpetrated against children.”

“However, we disagree with the state’s contention that coercing Ronchi to testify regarding communications that occurred during the sacrament of reconciliation, in contravention of his sincerely held religious beliefs, would be the least restrictive means to further its compelling governmental interest of prosecuting Burton,” said the ruling by appeals-court judges Vincent Torpy, Kerry Evander and Richard Orfinger. “First, as the state acknowledges, the testimony of Ronchi would, at most, be corroborative evidence. There is no allegation that Ronchi was a witness to any sexual abuse. Second, this case does not involve a child victim who, because of his or her tender age, might be unable to adequately testify as to the alleged sexual abuse. The alleged victim in this case is now an adult, and there is nothing in the record that suggests that she would be unable to testify as to the relevant events. Third … the state could seek to have the alleged victim testify as to her purported prior disclosure of sexual abuse to Ronchi.”