FR. VINCENZO RONCHI, Petitioner,
STATE OF FLORIDA AND LOREN TIM BURTON, Respondents.
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.
W. Shaughnessy, Caroline M. Landt, and Meagan L. Martin, of
Baker & Hostetler, Orlando, for Petitioner.
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.
Appearance for Respondent, Loren Tim Burton.
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. Concluding that
the trial court's order contravenes Florida's
Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("FRFRA"), we
grant the petition.
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.
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. Here, the State alleged that when the
alleged victim was fifteen years old, she disclosed to Ronchi
that Burton had sexually abused her.
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). 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.
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.
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."
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.
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 ...