HC Deb 09 March 1860 vol 157 cc235-7

said, he wished to ask a Question of the Secretary of State for the Home Department regarding the committal of a Roman Catholic Priest at the Durham Assizes, for refusing to disclose statements made to him in confession. A prisoner had been tried at the Durham Assizes for stealing a watch, which had been given up to the police by a Roman Catholic priest; the clergyman was made a witness, and when he was asked from whom he had received the watch he de- clined to answer the question on the ground that all the knowledge which he possessed upon the subject had been acquired by him under the secrecy of the confessional. The Judge, however, decided that he was bound to answer the question, and committed him for contempt of court on his expressing his determination not to divulge the secret. Now it was evident that if the priest had answered the question he would have divulged the most material part of the confession, for when a person confessed a theft he was bound to make restitution of the thing stolen; and the watch was, no doubt, given to the priest in confession. The Judge told the priest that he was not asked to divulge anything communicated to him in confession, but he was only asked who gave him the watch. This appeared to be a distinction without a difference. He wished to say nothing but what was respectful to Mr. Justice Hill, but he thought the matter was a mistake and an oppressive one. He thought he was warranted in saying that by the old common law of England anything told under the seal of confession constituted a privilege. An attorney was not required to divulge anything told him by his client, and the seal of confession was certainly not of less high a nature. What he wished to ask was, Whether the rev. Gentleman who had been committed to prison had been set at liberty, and, if not, he should like to know whether the Government would take steps that he might be immediately liberated?


said, his knowledge of that case was derived solely from the statement of the hon. and learned Gentleman and from the report of the trial which had been published in the newspapers. The prisoner was indicted for stealing a watch; a Roman Catholic priest was called as a witness and sworn; but when asked from whom he had received the watch he had delivered up to the police, he refused to answer the question, and thereupon the Judge committed him. With respect to the law of the case, his opinion entirely differed from that of the hon. and learned Gentleman. The law of England did not, he believed, give a clergyman the right to refuse to answer a question in reference to a communication which had been made to him in confession. A communication which passed between a counsel or attorney and his client, especially on business to which a suit related, was privileged; but no such privilege existed with respect to a clergyman of any denomination, or a physician. As far as he was acquainted with the facts of that case, the question had been pressed by counsel, and the Judge was compelled to commit the clergyman when he persisted in his refusal to answer it. He apprehended that it would have been competent to the counsel to consent to waive the question; and that was, he believed, the course which was usually pursued in cases of that description in Ireland, where such instances naturally arose more frequently than in this country. But as the facts had actually taken place, the Judge, as far as be could see, had no discretion in the matter. He had reason to believe that the clergyman remained in custody only a few minutes, or, at all events, that he was discharged before the close of the day. He had, it was true, received no official intelligence to that effect, but he entertained little or no doubt that that was the fact.


rose to bear testimony to the worthy character of the clergyman, and said that he had refused to answer the question simply on account of an insuperable conscientious objection. From what he bad heard he had not the least doubt that the rev. gentleman was now released.


observed, that it had been established by a decision of the Exchequer Chamber that communications made in confession were not privileged. He was glad to learn, however, that in this particular case the rev. gentleman had been released.