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Confess in Confidence

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Mason Verger: I'm sure she's told you horrible things that I've done.
Hannibal Lecter: I can't tell you what Margot's confessed to me. Fortunately for you, I can't tell anyone.

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 some countries do not recognize it; 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 from ever hearing 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. This is even further enforced by Military Chaplains, who are legally bound by a 100% Confidentiality Guarantee. Not only can a chaplain not share what has been revealed to them due to sacramental reasons, but should they try, they would be arrested for violating their confidentiality agreement.
  • 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. One thing that will sometimes bring down an Amoral Attorney character is the fact that this privilege is strictly one-way: it protects the client but does not protect the attorney. Thus a client who'd previously been manipulated by his own lawyer is perfectly free to disclose to the court everything he told the lawyer, and everything the lawyer told him.

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 usually 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 a 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.

Whether or not reporters and other agents of the news media have this sort of protection is a gray area. In the United States, Supreme Court precedent establishes a limited protection for reporters, but it isn't absolute. If the government's need is urgent, reporters may be forced to reveal their sources, on penalty of contempt of court. Most US states have independently established additional protection for reporters using shield laws or other, similar measures. Outside the USA, the reporter's privilege varies from country to country. In nations that do not recognize a right to freedom of the press, there is no protection for reporters or their sources either.

Priest Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Pretty much every chapter/episode of Kaitou Saint Tail (the main exceptions are the second half of two-parters) has someone going to Seira's chapel for guidance, and Seira then taking their tale to Meimi so that Saint Tail can act on the information. While these are generally not strictly confessions (as they are about other people's misdeeds), Seira's routine violation of the other party's trust would be a major infraction for a novice nun.
  • Happens in Osamu Tezuka's MW, where Michio taunts Garai by confessing to many of his more horrible misdeeds in church.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.

  • Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman: Jeanne seeks out her priest cousin to confide about a murder she committed. This serves as the framing device for the story of her liaisons.
  • 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 committed a crime, intend to commit 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 a lot 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 to be made (they don't trust that the hearer will be discreet). An amazingly current book in the themes it addresses.
  • A Prayer for the Dying, a novel by Jack Higgins (later turned into a movie) is about an ex-IRA terrorist whose contract killing is witnessed by a priest. Rather than kill this witness, the killer simply goes round to his church and confesses, knowing the priest will have to keep silent. Unfortunately, the crime boss who set up the assassination doesn't believe that the priest will keep his mouth shut, leading to an inevitable conflict.
  • In the sci-fi spoof novel Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison, Bill goes to see the ship's chaplain, who also doubles as the laundry officer as there's not much call for a chaplain on a warship. Bill says that he thinks one of his crewmates is a spy. The chaplain downplays Bill's suspicions and promises to keep the confession a secret, but as soon as it's time to become the laundry officer again he calls the MPs.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Similarly, in Lewis, a priest is unable to tell Lewis and Hathaway what the victim said to him in the confessional booth. But the priest then points out that the seal of the confession doesn't apply to things said outside the booth, and tries to give them some clues that way.
  • 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."
  • A particularly messy variant in Jonathan Creek. In "The Judas Tree", the killer note  confessed upon realising that the victim was pregnant. The priest was unable to reveal this, partly because of the sanctity of the box and partly because he was fast asleep at the time. However, said confession was also overheard by the housekeeper; after much contemplation, she concluded she also had to respect the confessional seal. She does manage to arrange for Jonathan to find out the truth, but not before he had been discredited in court; the net result is one of the most depressing Downer Endings in the series.
  • 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).
  • In one episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a priest tells Logan that he learned from a deathbed confession that a man was serving time for a crime he didn't commit, but can't give Logan any details because of the confidentiality issue. The information he is able to provide turns out to be just enough for Logan and Wheeler to figure out what the crime was (it helps that even the bare-bones details were relatively unique) and they slowly unravel it.
  • Becomes an issue in the Season 3 finale of Law & Order: SVU, in which a priest can't turn in a fellow priest who's a pedophile because said priest confessed to him. He knows it's wrong and he also knows the man won't stop (because he keeps coming back and confessing the same sin), but he feels bound by his oath. Elliot eventually convinces him that protecting potential future victims is worth the consequences of violating confidence.
  • 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 with 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...
  • Father Brown ran into this trope a number of times.
    • One time was when a thief – who happened to be another priest – used the seal of the confession to confess to his crime in an effort to seal Father Brown's lips. While Father Brown wasn't able to get the thief arrested, he was able to make sure the thief was denied the prestigious clerical post he was seeking.
    • Another time, a murderer who had a grudge against Father Brown used the seal of the confession to confess to a crime she was going to commit as part of a plan to frame the Father for murder, since Brown would be unable to explain what he was doing at the scene of the crime without breaking his vows.
  • 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 framed a priest for his crime and then confessed the crime to the priest just before he was arrested.
  • The protagonist of Wiseguy, Vinnie Terranova, is ostensibly a member of The Mafia but actually an undercover federal agent. The only member of his family who knows this is his brother Pete, a Catholic priest, whom Vinnie can reveal the truth to in the confessional. The priest-hears-of-an-impending-murder plot also gets used.
  • Oz. Father Mukada has to hastily caution the sister of a crime boss when she explains that she's going to visit her brother and have him do some damage to her boyfriend, as they're not in confession but having a casual conversation on the bus.
  • The Equalizer. A Polish terrorist confesses to the planned assassination of a Soviet diplomat, then is gunned down on the steps of the church. The priest tries to avert the assassination without revealing how he came into knowledge. At one stage McCall and Kostmeyer (the priest's brother, who knows something is wrong but not what) ask another priest what someone in that situation could do if they found out about, say, a bomb in a theatre. The priest says: "He could ring the fire alarm, but couldn't tell anyone why. He shouldn't even let anyone see him doing it."
  • Defied For Laughs on Whose Line Is It Anyway? as an example of the "World's Worst Priest/Rabbi":
    Ryan Stiles: I understand you slept with three women. (whispered aside) He slept with three women!
  • Shaun Micallef's Mad as Hell parodies this in a sketch written in response to the Archbishop of Melbourne's refusal to break the Seal even in cases of child sex abuse. Shaun claims that he's a lapsed Catholic and doesn't feel comfortable bagging his religion in case it's the right one, so the sketch has him interviewing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a stand-in. The idea is that The Man Behind the Curtain is a conduit to the Great and Powerful Oz, no more guilty of the crime he's hearing about than the one he's committing by not reporting it. The two are then interrupted by a girl in the audience who asks the Wizard what he would do if she hypothetically confessed to murdering someone by dropping a house on her and then stealing her shoes. When told that he would keep it secret, she then asks what if she later on murdered someone else by throwing some liquid on her. The Wizard replies that he would rather go to jail than see someone else guilty of a far worse crime go to jail as well.
  • Forever Knight. The episode "For I Have Sinned" has the Serial Killer of the Week confessing to his priest that he's killing women in his congregation who have committed sin. He's just Evil Gloating though as he's a nutter who regards his actions as justified. The priest does try to warn his intended victim, but can't reveal who the killer is.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In the episode "The Collaborator" Major Kira asks her significant other Vedek Bareil about a conversation he once had with Pylar Bek. He declines to answer as it was the equivalent of a confession between an individual and a priest.
  • Taggart. In "Funeral Rites", a husband sets up his wife to be electrocuted by a faulty radiator, then goes and confesses to a priest. Unfortunately the murder attempt doesn't work, and while the priest can't go to the police he's certainly not going to stand idle while the husband has a second go.

  • In The Rose Tattoo, Serafina becomes very angry when Father de Leo, who used to hear Rosario's confessions, refuses on principle to tell her whether or not her late husband was having an affair with another woman.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons, "Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two)", 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.

    Real Life 
  • 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 the late nineteenth and early twentieth 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.
  • There is a new law in Ireland specifically requiring priests to report any and all confessions of sex abuse to the police. However, many are intending to defy the law.
  • At least one saint was martyred expressly because he refused to divulge what was confessed to him.
  • This privilege is protected in United States Law. A cleric can not be compelled to reveal the details of a confession, not even in a criminal case.
  • One of the criticisms in how the Catholic church has handled sex abuse cases, and the reason for laws like the one in Ireland mentioned above, is that abusive priests have been confessing their crimes to other priests, essentially using Confession as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Medical Examples:

    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.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Incredible Hulk, Doc Samson finds himself in a difficult position after Rick Jones tells him, under the concept of doctor-patient privilege, that he murdered the ruler of Trans-Sabal.
  • In Judge Dredd there was a serial killer that had a psychiatrist who was trying to cure him that kept 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 hitman)'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...


  • All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG: Arthur undergoes mind-magic healing after his encounter with the mindsinger scourgelings. The mind mage discovers at least a few of his secrets, but immediately keeps them quiet.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor-Patient confidentiality is a recurring point in The Sopranos:
    • Dr. Jennifer Melfi, 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. The first season has Tony making an effort to avoid such subjects, but when he returns to therapy in season two — after Dr. Melfi is aware of all that he does and has willingly chosen to continue working with him — Tony stops dodging the darker aspects of his life. He still doesn't say exactly what's going on, since if it was blatant enough she couldn't ignore it, but he lets enough come through that she gets the idea anyway.
    • Junior takes advantage of doctor-patient privilege to conduct meetings in his doctor's office while he's awaiting trial on his racketeering charges since the government cannot legally wiretap the doctor's office. To get around it, the FBI has an agent go undercover as a nurse. Even worse for Junior, she's a good looking nurse and he can't help but flirt with her.
  • Barney Miller episode "Open House" has as the main plot a psychiatrist whose patient is setting fires. The shrink is reluctant to give over the name but finally does after two people narrowly escape being killed in the latest fire.
  • ER: During a meeting between himself and Dr. Carter, Dr. Green suffered a seizure due to a brain tumor. When he wakes up Greene declines any further medical assistance and takes a break outside. Carter comes out to ask if Greene is really OK, telling Greene that technically Greene is now Carter's patient and anything Greene discloses he'll keep confidential. Greene discloses that he has glioblastoma multiforme, which is aggressive and usually inoperable. Greene decides to head home but asks Carter to try to keep rumors from spreading. He explicitly asks Carter not to tell Elizabeth since he wants to tell her himself.
  • 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 the 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, then notes that confidentiality laws mean the doctors can't tell anyone. 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. Note that this was entirely unnecessary: as Frasier was seeking assistance in helping his patient, he was well within his professional ethics to discuss said issues so long as it was A) with another licensed medical professional, and B) pursuant to the patient's well-being. A better example is another episode where Niles breaks confidence by gossiping with Frasier about a patient of his who bragged about being a womanizer. When Frasier realizes Niles' patient and Roz's current boyfriend are one and the same, Frasier spends the episode trying to find a way to warn Roz without exposing Niles.
  • Plays a role in Hannibal, as intimate insight and trust allows Dr. Lecter to manipulate his patients into doing things he finds entertaining. So much so in fact that in season two, his therapy of the Verger siblings leads him to learn what Margot has suffered at the hands of her brother, prompting him to advise she kill Mason and later leading Lecter to play a hand in Mason's grisly "accident."
  • Invoked in one episode of House, where House gives a patient's father a brief examination in order to get a secret out of him, figuring the man will be more forthcoming if he knows House can't repeat anything he says.
  • Referenced in Rizzoli & Isles; the episode "Crazy for You" sees the team investigating the death of a psychiatrist, with the judge they approach for a warrant to get the doctor's files initially reluctant to grant it due to confidentiality issues (although it is later revealed that this was because the judge had been seeing the psychiatrist to explore his own transgender issues). Later on, it is revealed that the psychiatrist had been trying to get in touch with Jane because one of his patients had delusions that he and Jane were in love, with other characters specifically noting that in this case, the doctor was right to break confidentiality as he had reason to believe that Jane would be in danger from his patient.
  • In The X-Files episode Eve, Scully (herself a medical doctor) goes to an In Vitro Fertilization clinic for information about how a murdered couple's child was conceived (long story involving genetic tampering). When the doctor points out that such info falls under doctor-client privilege, Scully points out that as both of his clients are dead, any issues of privilege are moot at this point.
  • In season two of Breaking Bad, Walt is briefly abducted by Tuco and covers up for it by claiming to have experienced a 'fugue state', letting himself be found naked in a supermarket to sell the lie. He then uses this trope in combination with Confess to a Lesser Crime in order to convince his psychiatrist to approve his release from the hospital. After confirming that the therapist is ethics-bound to keep his secret, Walt admits that there was no fugue state, but lies and says he simply ran away because he was overwhelmed by the combination of his disease, Skyler's unplanned pregnancy, and their financial troubles.
  • In one episode of Without a Trace, a woman's abduction matches the MO of a recent murder victim. The FBI is able to identify the murderer, but he has an alibi for the missing woman, so they have to figure out who could have known the details of his crime in order to replicate it. It turns out the killer had confessed to his therapist. The therapist had then discussed it with his own therapist, whose husband just so happened to be having an affair with the missing woman. The murderer's therapist desperately wants to help the FBI, but can't because of the privilege. In fact, the stress of it is why he had to discuss it with his therapist in the first place.

    Video Games 
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • In the US there are two major exceptions to medical/psychologist privilege: 1) The patient presents an imminent danger, either to themself or others, and 2) The patient is involved in child abuse or elder abuse. In those cases, the doctor/therapist is actually legally obligated to report those to the authorities.
  • This was the ultimate break in the Lyle and Erik Menendez case. Erik confessed to his psychologist Jerome Oziel that he and his brother had murdered their parents. Lyle threatened Oziel to keep his mouth shut but Oziel told his mistress, who then shared the information with the police. Oziel was permitted to testify because Lyle made threats against him, opening up the danger-to-human-life exception to physician-patient privilege.
  • The early roots of doctor-patient privilege go as far back as the syphilis plagues of Europe, considering the scandalous nature of syphilis at the time.

Attorney Examples:

  • 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.
  • In Bridge of Spies, James Donovan is asked by his CIA contacts as to whether his client, a captured Soviet spy, has revealed any information. Donovan refuses to tell him what he wants to know, as doing so violates attorney-client privilege and he believes Abel is still entitled to his constitutional right of a fair trial.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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. The protagonists argued that he 'probably' did something to help hide the bodies (for instance, if he had to open a door to go into the room where they were, he then probably closed it behind him when he left which could be construed as helping to hide them), but they were never able to present any evidence of this. In any event, 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.
    • 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.
  • In one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a dead man's lawyer is the only person who can free a man who's been sitting in jail for two decades for a murder her client committed. She decides to come forward even though it's career suicide.
  • Subverted on The West Wing, where it turns out the White House Counsel is not actually the President's attorney:note 
    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.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • Saul Goodman invokes this trope by having his kidnappers give him a dollar so that they become his clients. However, once he becomes a partner in Walt and Jesse's criminal enterprise, they are no longer protected by attorney-client privilege which he fails to mention to them. It is implied that Walt and Jesse do not really know much about the law, and Saul knows this very well.
    • Played more straight when Walt's wife Skyler begins to see through his lies and visits a divorce lawyer to discuss how she can separate from him without hurting their family in the process. Before confessing that she knows Walt is a drug dealer she asks the lawyer in question about the confidentiality issue, who points out that since she's a lawyer and not a cop, she only has her client's best interests at heart.
  • Suits:
    • Mike Ross 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, making a weak attempt at hiding how he found out. Katrina realizes that he's broken confidentiality and chooses to accept the plea bargain anyway, before calling him out on it in private. This one is incidentally okay since a plea bargain is conducted in court: a failure to report the information would violate Mike's duty of being 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 Specter gets 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 breathalyzer 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.
  • In the premiere of The Good Fight Maia has an Oh, Crap! moment when she realizes that in the current circumstances the family attorney is representing her parents only and thus her conversation with him is not protected by the attorney-client privilege. Since Maia's and her parents' legal interests might be different, he cannot represent all of them and the parents are his default clients. Maia is not happy that he is trying to get her to potentially incriminate herself in front of him even though he can legally be compelled to testify against her.
  • 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 payphone, 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.
  • The main case in Reckless is that of a former female cop suing a local police department for wrongful termination. Da Chief fires her after explicit videos of her sleeping with a bunch of other (male) cops surface on the Internet. The whole thing looks like a deliberate set-up by the cops, specifically one particular detective, her regular lover. Evidence is found that the video was taken while she was under the influence of drugs, which she doesn't remember taking. At the very end, it's revealed that the girl deliberately engineered the whole situation (even dosing herself for the video and then emailing the video) in order to sue the department and get a lot of money. When her lawyer confronts her, the girl only mildly wonders why the lawyer took so long to figure it out and tells the lawyer that attorney-client privilege means the lawyer has to proceed as before.
  • Hill Street Blues puts Joyce Davenport in a quandary after her client confesses to killing his cellmate, and then goes on to gloat about the fact he's going to let Officer Coffee take the fall for him. It's resolved when said client gets himself gunned down in a shoot-out with the police.
  • Discussed in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where Opie tape records a confession between a man and his attorney. When Opie hands the recording to his father, Andy immediately erases the tape and explains to Opie that the law cannot use "that kind of help".
  • Daredevil (2015). When Karen Page finally reveals to Foggy Nelson that she killed James Wesley in Season One, Foggy tells her to pay him five dollars so it will be covered under attorney-client privilege.

    Visual Novel 
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All 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. He gets around it by presenting evidence to the assassin that Engarde planned to blackmail him, causing the assassin to target Engarde, causing Engarde to confess to the murder to stay protected in prison.


  • 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.
  • City of Bones by Martha Wells: Invoked by Elen, a law enforcement agent, to get the Guile Hero Khat to help in her investigation. When he balks at revealing his Black Market connections to her, she gets him to adopt her as his apprentice, which legally requires her to protect his business interests — whether or not they happen to be legal.

     Live-Action TV 
  • It is very common to see the characters in any Police Procedural come up against this when dealing with Anonymous support groups. In one incident, the sponsor of an alcoholic suspect refuses to tell the detectives anything beyond having met with the guy, thus heavily implying that the man did in fact confess to the murder. While no one has been outright forced to testify, they have been reminded that the confidentiality of such groups is merely ethical, not legal and that they don't have the same privilege as a doctor/lawyer/clergy.