Vicki Polin
Social Justice Activist

Rabbis, confidentiality and other ethical issues

Growing up in the United States means you most likely know something about the Christian faith and their concept of confession. The most commonly known format is the one used within the Catholic church where an individual goes to a priest and confesses their sins. It is understood that what they tell a priest would be kept confidential. This is a hallmark of the Catholic faith.

Often many individuals seek out spiritual guidance, which is considered a form of counseling, from their clergy. The problem is that in the US, there is a separation between Church and State and there are no laws on the books stating that clergy are required to keep what is said confidential. Talking to a spiritual advisor is the same as talking to a friend. Prior to communicating personal information with someone, it is always suggested that you establish a degree of trust between that person and yourself.

If you should tell a friend secrets about yourself you have no way of being assured that what you tell them would be kept confidential. If your friend were to share personal information about you, you would have no legal recourse — except if what they said is untrue. The same could be said about any member of the clergy that you would communicate with.

One remedy to this situation is to have some sort of signed document between yourself and the clergy member (a written contract). If there would be a breach in the contract then you would have some legal standing in a law suit.

There is a difference when you speak to a licensed mental health provider and a rabbi, priest, or other spiritual advisor. A licensed mental health provider is bound by the ethics of their degree, and is required to follow the state and federal laws, pertaining to confidentiality. A rabbi, priest or other members of the clergy are not regulated and there is no legal remedies to situations relating to the violation of confidentiality.

It is also important to note that mental health providers are mandated reporters. What this means is that if you are a danger to yourself, or someone else — they are obligated by law to report it to the proper authorities. If a child is at risk of harm, they can NOT keep that information confidential. Many advocates for children believes the same should be true with clergy.

One suggestion is that prior to disclosing personal information about yourself or a loved one, you might want to consider writing up a document and have your clergy member and a witness sign and date it.

Another suggestion is that all synagogues and or other organizations that employ a rabbi or other clergy member have a written blanket statement regarding confidentiality, and make the statement legally binding.

Below are some suggestions and points that you may want to include in such a document.

1. Your name

2. The clergy members name and or the name of the organization/synagogue they are employed.

3. The date the confidentiality agreement is signed.

4. A statement stating the types of information that you request to be kept confidential.

5. A statement acknowledging the concept of mandated reporting.

This article was co-authored by Michael J. Salamon, PhD., and originally published by The Awareness Center back in 2005.

About the Author
Vicki Polin is a feminist who has been a Social Justice Activist since her childhood. Vicki is also an award winning, retired psychotherapist who worked in the anti-rape field for just under forty years. For fun Vicki is an artist and nature photographer.
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