The Priest, the Killer, and Some Thorny Ethical Questions

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BETH A. KEISER/AP

Freed on new information: Jose Morales

It sounds like a bad movie of the week: A priest hears about a murder, keeps quiet about it for years while apparently innocent men spend half their lives in jail, and comes forward only when the confessed murderer is dead.

In fact, it's all true, and the story playing out this week in New York raises some fundamental questions: What are a priest's responsibilities in such a case? What does it mean to be a member of good standing in your profession, versus what it takes to be a good citizen? And, maybe most important, what would you do?

The case

In 1989, just before Jose Morales and Ruben Montalvo were sentenced for murdering Jose Rivera, Jesus Fornes went to Father Joseph Towle and admitted to the murder, adding that the men convicted of the crime were not involved. On Towle’s advice, Fornes went to the court, told a public defender his story, and then quickly found himself a lawyer, who in turn advised him not to speak further about his role in the crime.

By that time, Morales and Montalvo’s fates were sealed: They were sentenced to 15-year terms after the court rejected two second-hand testimonies linking Fornes to the crime and exonerating the accused.

After more than a decade of silence, and following the 1997 death of Jesus Fornes, the priest and the public defender who’d heard Fornes’ admission both come forward to testify in Morales’ defense. Tuesday, Jose Morales was freed from prison; he’d served more than thirteen years of his sentence.

Which leaves us with questions: Why was the court so quick to dismiss testimony about Fornes’ involvement — which might have established reasonable doubt of Morales and Montalvo’s guilt? Why did the public defender take so long to come forward? And, perhaps most baffling, why did the Catholic priest go public at all?

The religious conundrum

Did Father Towle in fact hear, and then reveal, Jesus Fornes’ private confession? Or was Towle simply providing what’s called "pastoral counseling" to a guilt-ridden young man? The answer could determine his future in the Church.

Confession or not, if Towle had been subpoenaed, he would have had a legal responsibility to tell what he knew about the case. But as far as the Church is concerned, if Towle spoke to Fornes simply as a confidant, a friend, then he could do as he wished with the admission. (The obvious question: If this was not a confession, why did Towle let Morales and Montalvo spend a decade in jail while he sat on exonerating information?)

If, however, Towle and Fornes’ exchange took place within the sacrament of confession, Towle could be excommunicated for breaching the "sacramental seal," says Father John Beal, head of the canon law department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

"If he has indeed violated the sacramental seal, he has already incurred an excommunication," Beal says. "That’s how seriously the church treats this issue." How does the Church determine whether a sacrament has taken place? It can be difficult, says Beal. "Unlike some of the other sacraments in the Catholic Church, confessional is fairly unstructured," he explains. "It’s not always clear where the line is between pastoral counseling and spiritual direction and sacramental absolution. It’s up to the individual priest.

"The disturbing part about this case is trying to figure out the facts, which, at least according to Father Towle’s statements, are not entirely consistent," Beal continues. "At one point, he said he gave the man a blessing at the end of their conversation. That would mean it was not a sacramental confession. At another, Father Towle said he gave the young man an absolution — and that does make what happened between them a confession."

Even Fornes' death doesn’t help Towle’s case with the Church. "The sacramental seal on confession extends beyond the grave," Beal says. "The only thing that could conceivably release the confessor from the sacramental seal — and this is somewhat disputed — would be if the penitent released the confessor. But in this case, since the young man is dead, we don’t know if that happened. Presumably, it did not."

In the end, of course, Father Towle didn’t obey either principle — religious or moral. He waited ten years, until after Fornes died, to come forward with his information. If he did receive confession from Fornes, Towles could be excommunicated. If he didn’t, the priest simply exposed his own questionable character.

A psychiatrist’s responsibility

What if Jesus Fornes had confessed his crime to a psychiatrist? According to Dr. Richard Harding, president of the American Psychiatric Association and staff member at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, the psychiatrist’s loyalty lies solely with his client. If a patient commits murder and confesses the crime to his doctor, and that doctor is subpoenaed and asked point-blank whether his client committed the murder, the psychiatrist is supposed to do almost anything to avoid implicating his patient. Why? First to maintain that patient’s trust. Second, because people tell their psychiatrists they plan to do things they have no intention of actually doing. "In a neutral, controlled setting," notes Dr. Harding, "plenty of patients come in and say all sorts of things they’re not actually going to do."

That said, adds Harding, "There is legal precedent clearly stating that we do have the responsibility to protect. And so if we know of a situation that is going to happen or may potentially happen that could endanger the person we’re talking to, or others, we have a duty to warn — even if it breaks patient-doctor confidentiality. That can mean going to the police, but it doesn’t have to. It can also mean calling the person who may be injured and warning them."

The layman’s duty

How about the rest of us? If I, for example, heard Jesus Fornes admit to the crime, would I have a legal responsibility to tell someone?

Not necessarily. If I simply knew that he had committed the crime and I didn’t say anything to anyone, and no one asked me any questions about the murder, I would be perfectly safe (legally) keeping quiet. On the other hand, according to U.S. Code, if someone approached me and asked me if I knew anything about the murder, and I lied and said no, I could be charged with obstruction of justice.

In other words, I have no legal responsibility to come forward and tell anyone about what I’ve heard. Do I have an ethical or moral responsibility to tell someone? Probably. But that’s a whole different story.