Conan Hale has been named as an accomplice in the shootings of three teenagers, including a girl who was raped. When he asked a Catholic priest to hear his confession, it was taped by prison authorities.
A warning by a county prosecutor, Doug Harcleroad, that he may use the tape in the prosecution of Mr Hale has provoked an outcry in the American Catholic Church, on the grounds that it is an unprecedented invasion of the sanctity of confession.
"Anyone who would do this is transgressing not only God's law but even the law of the state, the law of the nation, the common law," said Monsignor Michael Wrenn, a New York cleric and former director of the state's graduate school of religious education.
But Mr Harcleroad has dug in his heels in a case that pits dwindling sympathy for the rights of prisoners against one of the holiest Catholic sacraments. The Oregon archdiocese has already asked him to destroy the tape and will go to the courts if necessary, a spokesman said yesterday.
In the OJ Simpson trial, a prison guard allegedly overhead a shouted exchange between Mr Simpson and another former football player, Rosy Grier, who was also a minister. But while his account found its way into the newspapers, it did not surface at Mr Simpson's trial. Nor was Ms Grier a Catholic.
The confidentiality of confession is regarded as inviolable. Oregon's bishop, Kenneth Steiner, in a letter read in parishes on Sunday, observed that "canon law forbids any confessor to betray a penitent by any means for any reasons whatsoever".
If a penitent confessed to a terrible crime, said Mgr Wrenn, a priest could counsel him to turn himself in. But he would only deny absolution if he concluded the penitent was not genuinely sorry nor willing to amend his life.
Last December the naked bodies of three teenagers from Springfield, Oregon, were found at the end of a logging road. They included the 15-year-old girl and her boyfriend, shot through the head, and a 13-year-old boy who died of his wounds on Christmas Day. A man charged in the killings implicated Mr Hale, held on a related burglary. Mr Hale called a local priest, Timothy Mockaitis, to hear his confession through the telephones of the prison visiting-room.
Mr Harcleroad says he learnt of the visit and arranged the taping in advance. So far there has been no leak of what Mr Hale actually said, but several members of the prosecution team have listened to the tape.
He insists his action was legal. But while Oregon law allows jail conversations to be recorded, it also protects the confidentiality of discussions with clergy.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a national association of lay Catholics, has also promised to sue if the tape is not destroyed and has already asked for a congressional inquiry. "We can't have freedom of religion maintained if one of its sacraments is denied by the courts," said the league's president, William Donohue.Reuse content