PROSECUTORS IN Oregon are understandably eager to find and convict the people who perpetrated the brutal murders of three teen-agers. Likewise, the defense attorneys for one of the suspects understandably want to do their best in representing their client's interests.
But in pursuing their own ends, both the prosecutors and the defense have trampled rights that go beyond any particular criminal case, no matter how horrendous. They have violated centuries of respect for the confidentiality of the clergy-penitent relationship, known in the Catholic Church as the sacrament of reconciliation.
After Conan Wayne Hale was charged in the case earlier this year, he asked for a visit from a priest. The April meeting, held in the Lane County Jail in Eugene, was taped without the knowledge of the priest.
Even so, prosecutors argue that they should have access to the tape because the suspect himself knew that jailhouse meetings were routinely taped. That's hardly comforting to his priest or to anyone familiar with the religious meaning of the confessional, wherever it occurs.
The story gets worse, however. After the tape was retrieved by the jailhouse staff, an Oregon judge granted permission to prosecutors to listen to it. They did, and also made a transcript of the exchange. Later, the judge granted a similar request from Hale's lawyers, who maintained that it could help them in planning their defense. Regardless of whether the contents of the tape are ever used in court, the "seal of the confessional" -- its absolute sanctity -- has already been grievously violated.
Meanwhile, in federal court, the Catholic Church is seeking to have the tape destroyed. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful, but the church promises to appeal the case to the Supreme Court if necessary. The anger sparked by this clumsy pursuit of justice is also provoking talk of congressional action.
And it should -- unless the legal eagles in Oregon come to their senses and recognize that whatever evidence they find on that tape is not worth the violations they have committed against centuries of faith and principle.
Pub Date: 8/15/96