TRAVERSE CITY — A trial for a man accused of sexually assaulting a young boy at a church is on hold while the Michigan Court of Appeals decides if his admission to a pastor should be used as evidence.
Steven Richard, 28, of Honor, is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. His case was set to go to trial next week but the Michigan Court of Appeals granted leave so a panel can reach a decision on the disputed evidence.
Authorities allege Richard molested a boy, 6, in the bathroom of Immanuel Baptist Church in Garfield Township during a January church service. Law enforcement contend Richard told church Pastor Matthew Herron he needed to talk in private, then said he “screwed up” while telling Herron about the act. He wanted to contact the boy’s grandfather to ask for forgiveness and said he didn’t want to involve police.
“I thought Pastor Herron would counsel all of us,” said Richard, according to an affidavit.
Herron instead conferred with other church officials and they contacted authorities. Richard’s attorney, David Clark, argued Herron violated the clergy-penitent privilege under Michigan law that states a minister or priest of any denomination cannot disclose confessions made to him in his professional capacity “in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination.”
“Pastor Herron violated that privilege by disclosing information to the police,” Clark said. “Pastor Herron disclosed what my client told him, and then based on that information, other evidence was obtained. I think all that evidence should be suppressed.”
13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers in March denied Clark’s motion to suppress evidence and ruled Richard didn’t have an expectation of privacy.
Court documents show Richard called his mother from the church and said, “Mom, I did it again” while he waited for Grand Traverse sheriff’s deputies to arrive.
He was on federal probation at the time of the incident for sexual crimes against children. He was convicted in 2007 of indecent acts or liberties with a child at the U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said physical evidence links Richard to the crime.
“The case would still proceed even if the conversation was thrown out,” she said.
Moeggenberg said the clergy-pertinent privilege operates on a case-by-case basis and Baptists “don’t have a confessional, like a reconciliation, the way that Catholics do.” Herron didn’t see their communication as a confession, she said, and Richard did not mention sin or God.
“What he basically asked the pastor to do was bring somebody else into the conversation,” Moeggenberg said.