DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - In a case that could set national precedent, 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. Vaprezsan testified last March in the case against Bragg, who is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
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.
Farmington Hills attorney Ray Cassar, who represents Bragg, said putting a pastor on the stand eliminates a person’s presumption of innocence.
“If the pastor is allowed to testify, think about what it would do to the burden of proof. I mean, you’re presumed innocent and if a pastor gets up on the stand to testify, most of the jury members are going to take his word, and I think that eliminates the presumption of innocence,” Cassar told WWJ’s Roberta Jasina.
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.”
“The issue here is when you speak with a pastor or clergy of any type, the presumption and the rule is that communication is privilege. We want people to go and seek out counseling and talk to their pastors about issues and problems, and we want them to do so without the fear that that information could later on be used against them,” said Cassar.