TRAVERSE CITY — An Honor man's admission to a pastor about a sexual assault on a young boy at church can be used as evidence in a criminal trial, state appellate judges ruled.
Steven William Richard, 29, faces accusations he molested a boy, then 6, in the bathroom of Immanuel Baptist Church in Grand Traverse County's Garfield Township during a January 2013 church service. He'd been scheduled to stand trial last year in 13th Circuit Court on a sex crime charge, but an appeal put that on hold.
Michigan Court of Appeals judges this week ruled Richard's statements to a church pastor after the incident don't fall under the state's clergy-penitent privilege. Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said that puts the case back into 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers' courtroom for trial.
"If there is no appeal of this decision, or if the (Michigan Supreme Court) doesn't grant leave for appeal, then the case would proceed to trial as normal," Cooney said.
Richard's attorney David Clark said an appeal is a "possibility," but declined further comment because he hadn't yet read the decision.
Court documents state church Pastor Matthew Herron told authorities that Richard asked him to speak about an urgent matter. Richard told Herron that he "fell" and abused a boy at the church that morning. He asked Herron to contact the boy's family so he could get a "second chance."
Herron instead conferred with church officials and they contacted authorities, who started an investigation that led to Richard's first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge. Clark argued that violated the clergy-penitent privilege under Michigan law that protects certain confessions made to a minister or priest.
The appeal came after Rodgers rejected Clark's argument and found it important that Herron himself didn't consider his talk with Richard confidential under Baptist doctrine.
The appellate judges agreed with Rodgers. They also found nothing to dispute Rodgers' conclusion that Richard's and Herron's talk served no religious function, a fact Cooney found significant.
"In fact, what the trial court interpreted (the) evidence as showing is that the defendant sought a meeting with the victim's family for the purpose of trying to get a second chance, not for some religious purpose," Cooney said. "Essentially, what the judge found was that the meeting with the family was to keep them from contacting police."
Richard remains behind bars in a federal prison in Tuscon, Ariz. Records show he has a 2007 conviction on a indecent acts with a minor charge from North Carolina. He was on federal probation when the Grand Traverse County incident occurred.
Cooney said the appellate judges' decision is a "narrow" one that likely won't have an impact on Michigan law.
A hearing in 13th Circuit Court has yet to be set.