Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Court blocks church records
Jackson, Mississippi - The Mississippi Supreme Court has blocked a Hinds County judge's release of United Methodist Church documents to a woman who had filed a $10 million lawsuit against a minister who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her.
The court ruled Thursday that Circuit Judge Tomie Green did not perform a required document-by-document review to determine if they were protected by the church's claim of priest-penitent privilege, which includes information learned through confession and all forms of counseling.
Presiding Justice Bill Waller Jr., writing Thursday for the court, said Green must review each document and give reasons why each document is protected or not.
"Here, the circuit court violated that protective responsibility by allowing one party premature inspection of documents before the ruling as to privilege could be appealed," Waller wrote.
The Rev. Jeffrey Stallworth was the pastor of Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson until church officials learned he had been charged with second-degree rape in Maryland in March 2002.
Stallworth pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree sexual offense, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail. He received two years' probation. Prosecutors dropped the rape charge, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The woman filed the suit in Hinds County. According to the suit, which presented just one side of the legal argument, the 2001 incident caused the woman emotional and physical harm. She claimed the United Methodist Conference and the church were negligent in their supervision of Stallworth.
During the course of court proceedings, the woman asked for Methodist Conference documents on whether it had notice of any tendencies of Stallworth to engage in inappropriate behavior.
The Methodist Conference objected to releasing the documents as protected. However, the conference gave the documents to the trial judge for review.
According to the court record, Green found the documents had been kept in the regular course of business and were not confessional or were not exclusively religious in their nature. Green turned the documents over to the woman's attorney during a morning court session.
Waller said the judge's wholesale ruling that the documents were not privileged was wrong.
See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.
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