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Ronchi v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

June 15, 2018

FR. VINCENZO RONCHI, Petitioner,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA AND LOREN TIM BURTON, Respondents.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

          Petition for Certiorari Review of Order from the Circuit Court for Orange County, John Marshall Kest, Judge.

          Kevin W. Shaughnessy, Caroline M. Landt, and Meagan L. Martin, of Baker & Hostetler, Orlando, for Petitioner.

          Aramis D. Ayala, State Attorney Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida, and Jenny R. Rossman, Chief, Sex Crimes Unit, and Cherish Renee Adams, Sex Crimes Unit, Assistant State Attorneys, Orlando, for Respondent, State of Florida.

          No Appearance for Respondent, Loren Tim Burton.

          PER CURIAM.

         Father Vincenzo Ronchi, a Catholic priest, seeks certiorari review of an order requiring him to testify in a criminal case regarding certain communications that took place during the Sacrament of Reconciliation (commonly referred to as "Confession"). We have jurisdiction.[1] Concluding that the trial court's order contravenes Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("FRFRA"), we grant the petition.

         In June 2017, Loren Burton was charged in a four-count information with committing sexual offenses against a minor. The charged offenses were alleged to have occurred when the alleged victim was seven years old and when she was thirteen years old. The record reflects that the criminal investigation of Burton commenced after the alleged victim, then seventeen years old, disclosed to her mother that she had been sexually abused by Burton.

         In August 2017, the State filed a notice of intent to introduce child hearsay statements at trial pursuant to section 90.803(23), Florida Statutes (2017). That statute permits the introduction of out-of-court statements made by a child victim with a physical, mental, emotional, or developmental age of sixteen or less that describe any act of sexual abuse against the child provided that, inter alia, the time, content, circumstances or the statement provide sufficient safeguards of reliability.[2] Here, the State alleged that when the alleged victim was fifteen years old, she disclosed to Ronchi that Burton had sexually abused her.

         Upon being served a witness subpoena, Ronchi filed a Motion for Protective Order Limiting Testimony. In his motion, Ronchi alleged that the State intended to question him regarding communications that may have taken place between a penitent and Ronchi during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The motion further alleged that requiring Ronchi to testify as to any aspect of a Confession would violate the "sacred seal of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation" and, as such, would violate Ronchi's constitutional rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ronchi further alleged that any such communication would be privileged under section 90.505, Florida Statutes (2017).[3] Ronchi contended that the Catholic Church forbids a priest from disclosing any aspect of a penitent's communication during the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, indeed, is sanctionable by excommunication from the Church. Ronchi subsequently filed a supplement to his motion, alleging that the coercion of his testimony would violate FRFRA (§§ 761.01-.061, Fla. Stat. (2017)).

         In its written response, the State proffered that the alleged victim, now an adult, had waived any privilege attached to her prior communications with Ronchi regarding Burton. The State further argued that the only evidence it had to corroborate the alleged victim's anticipated trial testimony was her prior statement to Ronchi. The State contended that based on the alleged victim's waiver, her communications with Ronchi were no longer privileged under section 90.505. Finally, the State argued that it had a compelling interest in the successful prosecution of child sexual abuse and that the least restrictive means to further this strong governmental interest was to compel Ronchi's testimony. In a supplemental written response, the State proffered that it would produce evidence that during a conversation between Ronchi, the alleged victim's mother, and a friend of the mother's, Ronchi had acknowledged the alleged victim's disclosure of sexual abuse to him.

         The trial court subsequently conducted an evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, the mother's friend testified that during a conversation between her, the alleged victim's mother, and Ronchi, Ronchi acknowledged that the alleged victim had previously disclosed to him that she had been molested by Burton. This conversation took place shortly after the alleged victim had disclosed the sexual abuse to her mother. The alleged victim's mother appeared to have a different recollection of the conversation. In response to the court's question as to whether Ronchi had acknowledged that the alleged victim had previously disclosed the abuse to him, the mother testified "[N]ot directly, but it could be understood from the conversation."

         Ronchi did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, but did present the testimony of Father Joseph Waters, both a priest and a judicial vicar in the Catholic Church. Waters was examined extensively about his affidavit that had previously been filed with the court. In his affidavit, Waters averred that a Catholic priest is prohibited from disclosing any aspect of a penitent's communication during the Sacrament of Reconciliation including but not limited to, the penitent's participation in the Sacrament, the nature of the confession, the priest's mental impressions of the confession, and the priest's communications to the penitent during Reconciliation, even if disclosure is agreed to by the penitent. Reverend Waters further opined that violations of the Sacrament are considered among the most grave violations of Church law and would subject a priest to excommunication from the Church.

         The trial court ultimately entered a written order granting Ronchi's motion for protective order, in part, and denying the motion, in part. In its order, the trial court found that the communications between Ronchi and the alleged victim had occurred within the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This finding is supported by the record. The trial court then focused almost exclusively on the application of Florida's Evidence Code in ruling on Ronchi's motion. Specifically, the trial court determined that: (1) the communications between Ronchi and the alleged victim were privileged under section 90.505, (2) the privilege could be asserted by both Ronchi and the alleged victim, and (3) Ronchi had partially waived the privilege during his conversation with the alleged victim's mother and her friend to the extent that he disclosed the identity of the penitent and that "the subject of the disclosure was sexual abuse." The court concluded that Ronchi must respond to the subpoena and could be questioned about "the existence of the confession, the identity of the penitent, and that the subject matter involved sexual abuse." However, the trial court granted the ...


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