Detroit Court to hear arguments about pastor's testimony Admissibility of confidences shared in confession at stake in decision

DETROIT (AP) -- The three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel plans to hear arguments Thursday about whether a pastor's testimony related to a possible confession in a child sexual assault case may be used in court.

According to court documents, Samuel Bragg confessed in 2009 to the Rev. John Vaprezsan at Metro Baptist Church in Belleville about the 2007 assault of a 9-year-old girl when he was 15, the Detroit Free Press reported Wednesday. Vaprezsan testified last March in the case against Bragg, who is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

"This is a very dangerous case because it could have very serious repercussions for religion," said Raymond Cassar, a lawyer for Bragg. "If a pastor is allowed to testify against a member of his church about privileged communications, no one will want to confess their sins to their pastors anymore."

A decision from the Appeals Court panel is expected later.

Bragg was 17 years old in 2009 when he went with his mother to speak with Vaprezsan. They deny that he made a confession. After earlier hearing an allegation from the girl's mother and then speaking with Bragg, Vaprezsan gave a statement to police.

Vaprezsan's testimony came over the objections of Bragg's attorney at a preliminary examination in 34th District Court in Romulus. The girl also testified.

Bragg was ordered to stand trial in the case, but Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway later tossed Vaprezsan's testimony. She said it violated state law saying no priest or pastor shall be required to disclose confessions made in their professional capacity.

Asked whether he had ever encountered such a situation, Vaprezsan said: "As pastors, we're involved in a lot of situations with families. I really don't consider the repercussions, I just try to help people."

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Teri Odette said in court documents that a pastor's privilege doesn't apply in this case. Odette argued that Bragg's confession wasn't confidential because his mother was there, and it had nothing to do with church discipline or with spiritual guidance.

"The communication was initiated by the pastor -- not by the defendant -- and was done to ascertain whether the victim was telling the truth, not for the purpose of spiritual guidance," she said.

Bragg is free on bond. If convicted, he faces a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.

Published: Thu, Feb 9, 2012

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