Should a Clearwater man’s church confession be evidence in a criminal case?

CLEARWATER — 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. They 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.

The pastor sent a Facebook message inviting the group to an “emergency meeting,” court records state. He also spoke in person with Gonzalez, telling him he would need to explain what he had done and ask for forgiveness.

About 16 people attended the meeting. The pastor later said in court testimony that there was “an understanding” that the meeting would be confidential, but it was “not directly stated,” according to court records. He said that the church “was trying to deal with the human spiritual aspect” of what occurred.

The girl’s mother was invited, but decided not to attend. About 25 minutes into the two-hour meeting, the girl’s uncle began recording video of what was being said.

The video, taken a few feet away and directly in front of Gonzalez, showed him addressing the group in Spanish. He said he wished the girl’s mother was present so that everyone could hear him apologize to her, court records state.

“I’ll pretend she’s here,” he said, according to a court translation. “I ask (the mother) to forgive me, even though she’s not present here, but you are, as witnesses, because I have sinned.”

He went on to say that he had disrespected the pastor and asserted that he would face the consequences of his actions, according to court records.

“All right, Juan,” the girl’s uncle said. “But what did you do?”

Another person told Gonzalez that to be forgiven he had to say what his mistake was.

As he began to describe what happened, the crowd pressed for more details.

“Confess everything,” he was told. “Say everything that happened.”

Gonzalez said he believed that the girl’s mother would be present at the meeting and that everyone else would just be witnesses.

“No,” the pastor said. “The thing is that you were going to apologize to everyone, to all the church.”

Gonzalez pointed directly at the camera, noting that he was being recorded. The girl’s uncle responded, “I have the right to complain about it.”

Gonzalez then divulged more.

The pastor urged him to repent for his sins. He said the church did not want him to leave, but that he could no longer be a leader there.

A few months passed before Gonzalez was charged. Thereafter, his attorneys asked to throw out the video of his confession, citing clergy-penitent privilege.

Think of it the same way that a Catholic parishioner might approach the confession of sins to a priest — a practice that’s done quietly, with the understanding that the confession remains a private matter between the confessor, the priest and God.

The matter became the subject of a court hearing last fall, which featured testimony from the pastor and others who attended the church meeting.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philippe Matthey ruled in favor of the defense, heeding arguments that Gonzalez’s statements were intended to stay within the church.

Prosecutors appealed Matthey’s ruling. In arguments last fall before the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Tannen asserted that what Gonzalez said to his church leaders was not a private communication, but a public apology. He also noted that Gonzalez was aware he was being recorded on video.

“What reasonable expectation of privacy would a person have if he was videotaped?” Tannen told the court. “None. The camera was right in front of him.”

Frank Bane, an attorney for Gonzalez, argued in an appellate brief that the trial court’s ruling upheld the First Amendment’s protections that ensure churches and their congregants can practice their faith “without fear that a sincere search for God’s forgiveness will not be turned against them in a criminal court proceeding.”

A three-judge appellate panel ruled for the state.

Their opinion, authored by Judge Robert Morris, and joined by Judges Andrea Teves Smith and Matthew Lucas, concluded that what Gonzalez told his church was not private. They also found that the meeting’s purpose was to “resolve the problem,” as the pastor said, and not just to further spiritual advice. They found it significant that it was the pastor who sought out Gonzalez, not the other way around.

The case was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. A new hearing is set for March.