There are several professions where there has traditionally been a certain level of confidence between the professional and the client. Solicitors, clergy and medical professionals are the most common examples.
Naturally this is a very useful tool in fiction. You can have an exposition by the criminal and
put a person in an unimaginably difficult situation, break their code of conduct or allow a criminal to go free. This trope has three main sub-sets:
- Priest-Penitent Privilege: Most often invoked with (or by) Christians, this practice exists in many real world religions. There is often scope for conflict between religious and national law too, as it is often not recognised in court; yet, unlike some other privileges it is, for the priest, absolutely inviolable (For Catholic priests, pardon for breaking confidence has to come from the Pope, and one of the normal conditions of absolution may be forbidding the priest to ever hear confessions again. History provides numerous examples of priests going to jail, suffering torture or even choosing death over breaking the confessional seal). Often a case of research failure - the seal applies to sacramental confessions, regardless of where the confession is made, and does not have anything whatsoever to do with whether or not the information was revealed in a confessional booth. See Confessional. Also, the confession has to be serious, not a criminal sarcastically confessing his crime. If the confessor is not serious about his confession, the priest is not bound to stay silent.
- Doctor-Patient Privilege: Less common in cases of crime. Often can be violated in situations where one person's actions put their well-being or the well-being of another at risk. This comes up a bit more often when the doctor is a psychiatrist or other form of psychotherapist, since the patient's treatment necessarily involves telling the therapist very private information. (Yes, like The Sopranos.)
- Attorney-Client Privilege: Keeping the secret that your client is guilty is often used to show that an attorney is Evil, even if he is just doing what the law requires of him. (Literally. If the client tells the lawyer to shut up, for whatever reason, the lawyer must shut up; actually, the lawyer has to get the client's permission to talk about information revealed in confidence unless it falls under one of the numerous but narrow exceptions to the privilege.note ) This is often the strongest from a narrative point of view as the others are often not recognised by the courts but lawyers are frequently required to remain silent.
There is also Spousal Privilege
, in that a person can not be forced to testify about what was said in any and all private conversations with their spouse.
Often a case of artistic license when it's a profession that doesn't
have this kind of privilege (librarians, for example, have patron confidentiality as a professional standard but don't have any sort of legal obligation or protection in this matter) unless it's played for laughs.
Similarly to librarians, there is generally no attorney - client privilege for scientists, engineers, architects, etc., who provide data, designs, etc., for pay, but there is usually an contractual obligation to keep the data confidential.
Engineering ethics (which varies from one professional organization to another) generally dictate that if it becomes obvious that continuing the project will result in either violation of the law or unacceptable risk, the engineer must halt work and contact the employer. Only if the employer is not cooperative, the engineer should resign and contact authorities, though not necessarily in that order.
The media do not enjoy legal protection in this manner and may be forced to reveal their sources (on penalty of contempt of court) despite numerous attempts to gain immunity; in what may be an internal case of Not Doing the Research, reporters have been known to claim that they have this right, both in Real Life
and in fiction.
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Anime & Manga
- Happens in Osamu Tezuka's MW, where Michio taunts Garai by confessing to many of his more horrible misdeeds in church.
- During John Ostrander's run on The Spectre, Jim Corrigan (the Spectre's mortal guise) goes to confession to talk about his troubles judging the guilty. The priest tries to talk him through it, but the Spectre ends up deciding he needs to judge the whole world. Afterwards, the authorities try to get the priest to break confidentiality, since the whole planet might be in danger, and the priest refuses outright.
- Subverted in For Your Eyes Only: After Kristatos has taken the ATAC from Bond, Bond goes into a confessional at a Greek Orthodox church and says "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned...", and it turns out the Priest is actually Q, who says "That's putting it mildly, 007.".
- This is the central plot of Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess.
- Used rather badly in the 1994 film Priest. A great moral conflict is created when someone reveals to a priest in a confessional booth that he is committing, and has every intention of continuing to commit, a heinous and disgusting crime. From that point on, the priest is deeply conflicted about whether to reveal this information to the police. The only problem is that the seal of the confessional does not apply in this situation. The seal of the confessional applies to all sacramental confessions, and to sacramental confessions only, regardless of where the priest hears them. To future criminals: if you go into a confessional booth and tell the priest that you have perpetrated a crime, intend to perpetrate the crime again, are not sorry or remorseful at all, and are not seeking any advice or counsel, that priest has every canonical right to turn you in to the police.
- In the same film, a young girl tells in the confessional booth that she is the victim of sexual abuse. Again, the seal of the confessional does not apply because she had not done anything wrong, she was the victim. Obviously, you cannot confess and be forgiven for the sins someone else committed.
- Played for Laughs in Wedding Crashers, where Jeremy Grey gets drunk and tells the minister who's there to perform a wedding the truth about who he is and what he does. A few minutes later, the truth is out, and he angrily accuses the minister of breaking the confidentiality. However, the minister didn't tell anyone. It was the boyfriend of one of the sisters who discovered the truth through his friends.
- A minor plot point in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is Shell-Shocked Veteran Camaris' confession of his
sins role in the plot to Father Strangyeard. Camaris is asked to do this because he refuses to reveal his secrets in the open, but the heroes desperately need to know if what he knows has any bearing on their struggle with the Storm King. Although Strangyeard confirms that Camaris knows nothing useful, the confession devastates him, making him admit that for once, he understands why people might wish to drown their sorrows. It's also a convenient narrative way to hide Camaris' secret until after the climax, when Josua (to whom Camaris also confessed) reveals it.
- In The Gadfly, the protagonist loses all faith after he learns that his confessor leaked the secret to the police.
- In Earth (The Book) this is double subverted. There is a transcript of a confession where the person confesses to: speeding, a hit-and-run, hitting a cop in the hit-and-run, robbing a bank, and murdering people in the robbery. This causes the priest lots of discomfort. It seems completely played straight, until you realize it was transcribed. This is lampshaded, saying the transcriptions were for 'insurance purposes.'
- In E.F. Benson's "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham", a murderer confesses to a priest— to be sure that the priest's the only other one who knows an innocent man is going to die for the confessor's crime— and that he can't do anything about it.
- In the Tom Clancy novel Without Remorse, a priest counseling one of the girls that Clark rescues from the Big Bad tries to get her to talk with the police, as her own crimes are fairly minor compared to having witnessed two brutal murders. Unfortunately, he tells a policeman he knows that he's counseling a murder witness (Without naming her), who tells the Baltimore PD, whose dispatcher unknowingly tells a Dirty Cop, who tells the killer, who has the witness tracked down and killed before she can testify.
- Safehold Archbishop Maikel Staynair takes the seal of the confessional seriously. In fact, he is absolutely furious when he learns Merlin Athrawes inadvertently eavesdropped on one such confessional, being placated only when assured Merlin has taken steps to avoid it happening again. In that same conversation, Merlin is trying to convince Staynair to release the seal from that confessional in order to help save several endangered people. Though such a thing is within his authority, Staynair agrees only because of the immediate threat to innocent lives.
- In John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider" confidential confession through the video phone to a professional listener whose duty is to keep the call confidential is possible. This is allowed through what would now be called an extremely successful hack of the telephone and information network (the book predates the internet). The authorities naturally are not at all keen that this is possible mainly for policy reasons (they don't want it possible to have a conversation they can't listen in on) but also because there are some confessions they really don't want made (they don't trust that the hearer will be discreet). An amazingly current book in the themes it addresses.
- A Catholic Priest hears a confession of a crime in A Touch of Frost that causes him some real difficulties.
- Subverted in Leverage, when Nate (a mostly-trained former priest) uses the sanctity of the confessional to achieve his aims as a conman.
- In his defense, the plan he came up with as a result hinged on providing the confessor a chance to do the right thing and make the confession in public.
- CSI - A Catholic priest, bound by his confidentiality, at least tries to steer the investigators in the right direction.
- Poltergeist: The Legacy: A priest denounced a serial killer that confessed not only his recent murders, but also some future ones. He later rationalized it because the killer didn't actually repent for his crimes.
- Highlander: The Series: On at least two occasions evil Immortals use confessions as opportunities to gloat and the priests involved are unable to report their "confessions."
- Ian Hislop has claimed in interviews that at one point during his long-standing feud with Piers Morgan, his vicar told him that the Daily Mirror had called wanting to know if he'd confessed "anything good."
- In one episode of Law & Order, a murder case hinges on whether a priest will break confidence and finger the man who confessed to him. And in case the decision wasn't hard enough, the victim in the case was also a priest.
- Several episodes have dealt with Priest confessions. One time, the "confession" was done when the person was walking with a priest. Another, the wife to the head of a morally questionable sect tries to invoke this privilege with the Church's accountant, but succeeded (Jack later noted judges often don't want to touch the subject of religious privilege).
- After Jamie Ross' departure as a regular character, she makes a guest appearance defending a man from her former practice who had confessed to a murder that another man took the fall for. Much of the episode revolves around her trying to balance her responsibility to her client with a compulsion to help get an innocent man freed.
- Father Mulcahy has had to figure out ways to resolve issues that he learns about in a confessional without violating the seal of the confessional on multiple occasions on M*A*S*H.
- Zig-Zagged in the Italian series Don Matteo. The title character, a priest and amateur sleuth, is convinced that a man is a killer, and the man gets so annoyed of Don Matteo investigating that he goes to him in confession and says, "Yes, I killed that bastard, and now you won't be able to do anything about it because of the secret of confession!". Don Matteo is stumped for a bit, but then tells the culprit that he would gladly be excommunicated if it meant putting the culprit behind bars. Then the culprit sees Don Matteo talking to the police and attacks him with a hammer, screaming "I'll kill you so you won't tell them I did it!". Don Matteo, however, wasn't telling on him, but simply having a nice chat with his policeman friend...
- An episode of Murder, She Wrote opened with a woman confessing to murder, and the priest having to decide what to do about it. This being Murder, She Wrote, the woman hadn't committed the murder after all.
- In the Diagnosis: Murder episode "Confession" the killer confesses to a priest and then frames the same priest for the crime.
- In The Simpsons "Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 2" Smithers goes to confession.
Smithers: Father, I'm not a Catholic, but...well, I tried to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade. But anyway, I've got a...rather large sin to confess. sniffles I'm the one who...shot Mr. Burns!
Wiggum:( pokes head out, cocks gun) That's all I needed to hear! Boy, this thing works great.
- This has been invoked by many Russian tyrants, most infamously Ivan the Terrible, but he's not the biggest offender for this in Russian history. In late XIX and early XX centuries, before the Red October, Russian imperial police required the priests to report any crimes, criminal or political, they learned about in confessionals.
- Even after the revolution the practice continued, with the NKVD and its successor the KGB either infiltrating the Russian Orthodox Church directly or paying off priests to act as informers.
- There was a scandal a few years ago where a priest was appointed to a Polish bishopric and was discovered to have revealed secrets he learned in the confessional to the secret police back when the Communists were still in power.
- A new law in Ireland specifically requiring priests to report any and all confessions of sex abuse to the police, regardless of canon law, is causing some ruckus.
- At least one saint was martyred expressly because he refused to divulge what was confessed to him.
Anime and Manga
- Black Jack has run into this a few times. Since he's an unlicensed surgeon, he usually only worries about patient confidentiality when it suits him, but he occasionally finds inventive ways around it... like charging a bank robber all the money he stole for a life-saving operation, and then turning the money in to the police.
- In Judge Dredd there was a serial killer that had a psychiatrist who was trying to cure him that kept a confidence in this way. If he felt guilty about it however, he didn't say so.
- In the Billy Crystal/Robert deNiro film Analyze This and presumably the sequel, a mob boss-type character gets his psychiatrist involved in his shady dealings this way.
- In Grosse Pointe Blank, the main character (a hit man)'s therapist tries to explain the loopholes in confidentiality and being required to report it when/if he knows his patient is going to hurt someone. The patient assures him that it's fine, he understands, and he doesn't want to make things difficult for him, and anyways he knows where the doctor lives…
- Referenced at the beginning of The Sopranos: Tony Soprano's psychiatrist tells him that if he confesses to her any serious crimes, or suggests that someone is in physical danger (eg, that he intends to kill someone), then she is a mandated reporter and has to pass the info on.
- Also they used Doctor-patient privilege to have meetings with Junior in his Doctor's office while he was on trial, since the government could not wiretap the Doctor's office.
- In an episode of Dream On, Martin is dating this wonderful new girl that he hasn't slept with yet (he's trying something new), but it turns out she's a client of Judith, Martin's therapist ex-wife, and she becomes homicidal after sleeping with someone. Judith eventually puts it together, and shows up at Martin's apartment just after they've consummated their relationship and as she's about to kill Martin.
- Non-criminal example in Scrubs. JD is smitten with a girl and unintentionally agrees to treat her boyfriend. He diagnoses a man with an STD and he confesses that he probably got it from a girl he was seeing on the side, then invokes doctor-patient privilege to force JD not to share the diagnosis or the fact that he is cheating. JD has to choose between warning the girlfriend or his professional ethics.
- This is averted in some jurisdictions, as sexually-transmitted diseases need to be reported to the local health authority and/or the patient's sexual partners. In this specific example, the girl and her boyfriend had not had sex yet so JD couldn't use this loophole to tell her anyway. Fortunately, she figures it out before sleeping with the jerk, when her coworker (who her boyfriend slept with) develops the same symptoms and gets diagnosed with Gonorrhea too.
- In an episode of Grey's Anatomy, a woman confesses to purposefully ramming her car into her husband. The two doctors listening point out they only share confidentiality based on medical information, not criminal activities, and she's arrested.
- In an episode of Frasier, the eponymous doctor finds a loophole in the psychiatrist/patient confidentiality agreement by becoming a patient to his brother (also a psychiatrist), allowing him to tell his brother his patient's troubles.
- In Heavy Rain, Ethan Mars' shrink initially refuses to talk to the police, citing doctor-patient privilege. Detective Blake, a definite Bad Cop, just beats it out of him, and the stuff from Ethan's psychic evaluations turns out to be pretty damning.
- Part of the ending of Primal Fear: A murderer who escaped justice boasts to his lawyer that he committed the crime but the lawyer can't tell anyone else because of attorney-client privilege.
- ...And Justice for All involves a lawyer being politically blackmailed into defending a judge (who he despises) who's been accused of beating and raping a young woman. At one point the judge confesses to the crime.
- One episode of Law & Order has a lawyer who refuses to reveal the location of his client's victims' bodies. At first it seems like he wants to avoid introducing evidence that would damn his client. Then the client is convicted and they assume he doesn't want to get in trouble for break privilege or is trying to impress his bosses. So they have a judge tell him point blank he won't be arrested unless he doesn't tell them. It turns out that he really doesn't want to break attorney-client privilege on principle, and he goes to jail for contempt of court.
- Note that the privilege really does allow him—nay, require him—to keep quiet, so long as the client does not waive the privilege (unless the L&O-verse New York has some extremely peculiar rules), so long as he never physically touched the corpses. In theory, he should not have been held in contempt, and might even be able to sue for it. Also, there's no chance at all he would be disciplined by the Bar.
- This case was based on a real one, the so-called "Buried Bodies Case" in the early 1970s. The two lawyers were not disbarred, not jailed for contempt of court, and although they were charged with crimes relating to concealment of the evidence, they were not convicted, and the judge actually applauded one of them for his commitment to professional ethics.
- Subverted on The West Wing, where it turns out the the White House Counsel is not actually the President's attorney:
Bartlet: Well, Oliver, it really boils down to this... I'm going to tell you a story, and then I need you to tell me whether or not I've engaged 16 people in a massive criminal conspiracy to defraud the public in order to win a presidential election.
Oliver: Okay. [...] Okay sir, uh... before we go any further, there's something that I want to make sure is absolutely clear.
Bartlet: What's that?
Oliver: You and I don't enjoy attorney/client privilege.
- White Collar: Neal exploits this when he gets framed and arrested in season 1. Since his attorney is his partner in crime Mozzie, they can use attorney-client privilege to keep the FBI from monitoring them while they plot Neal's escape.
- In Breaking Bad, shady attorney Saul invokes this trope by having his kidnappers give him a dollar so that they become his clients. However, once he becomes a partner in their criminal enterprise, they are no longer protected by attorney-client privilege which he fails to mention to them. It is implied that Walt and Jessie do not really know much about the law.
- On Suits Mike faces a dilemma when a client confesses to him that he was stoned when he hit and killed someone with his car. Mike has just secured the client a nice plea bargain on the assumption that the death was purely accidental. Mike's parents were killed by a drunk driver and his conscience won't let him keep quiet about what he knows and thus sabotaging the deal. This one is incidentally OK, since a plea bargain is conducted in court: a failure to report the information would violate Mike's duty to be honest to the tribunal, and would also possibly be suborning perjury (i.e. allowing someone to lie to the court). Of course, Mike isn't actually a lawyer anyway...
- When Harvey is sued by a former client for malpractice, he reminds her that this is one of the circumstances when he is allowed to break confidentiality in order to defend himself against her accusations. While she was his client she told him about various crimes she committed, withheld vital information from him and straight up ordered him to bribe witnesses. Since all of this had a very negative effect on his ability to defend her in court, he will be able to reveal this information in court in order to show that the problems with the case arose because of her wrongdoing rather than any incompetence or malice on Harvey's part. She immediately drops the suit.
- In The Good Wife, Alicia is asked to represent Jonas Stern, the founder of the law firm where she works. Stern intends to represent himself and only use Alicia as a front. In the course of the trial, Alicia discovers that DUI and battery charges were, in fact, not caused by drunkenness but by dementia. Stern forbids her from revealing this in court and invokes attorney-client privilege to keep this a secret from his two senior partners, knowing that one of them wants to force him out. Alicia manages to get the case dropped by getting the arresting officer to admit that the breathalizer test he administered to Stern at the time of the arrest was negative. Stern returns in a later episode and is annoyed when Alicia innocently asks how he's feeling. He threatens to sue her if she violates the privilege, but she replies that it was a normal, everyday question. This ends up being moot when he dies some episodes later from a heart attack.
- One episode of NCIS has a marine suspected for murder (His vehicle was used in a hit and run killing) tell his attorney that he couldn't have done it because at the time of the accident he was miles away stabbing someone to death. The attorney is unable to inform Gibbs of this because of client-attorney confidentiality, but does deliberately give Gibbs a lead by calling him to say that her client's unstated alibi checks out while standing across the street from the scene of the murder the man did commit. She also deliberately uses a pay phone, knowing that the unknown number will look suspicious and cause Gibbs to trace the call.
- In L.A. Law, Ann defends a psychiatrist in a negligence suit concerning one of his clients who was convicted of murder. In the course of the trial, she realizes that the accused man couldn't be guilty, and asks her client if he knows who else might have done it. In order to prevent her from re-opening the investigation, he confesses that he did it, at which point attorney-client privilege ties her hands. She consults with a retired DA friend, who correctly tells her she can't do anything without getting herself disbarred and her whole firm sued. He, on the other hand, is both retired and terminally ill, and sends the story to the newspapers without her knowledge or consent, thus bringing all the consequences on himself.
- Ace Attorney ran into this, where one of the protagonist's clients actually is guilty and admits it, but the hero can't tell anyone. The assassin who was hired by Engarde kidnapped Maya and threatened to kill her if Phoenix didn't get Engarde off the hook, so he couldn't say anything even if he was allowed to, or even drop the case.
- In Anne Mason's Kira Warden books, translators can be put on "sector status" by some government officials; revealing anything they were told under that status is punishable by death, both for the translator and the person they told (meant as a protection against someone coercing the translator to talk). A large part of The Stolen Law revolves around Kira choosing to violate sector status rather than allow a murder, and eventually discovering that the translations of the law were manipulated to conceal exceptions in the law for such cases.