NEW YORK — The Rev. Joseph Towle saw himself as a "street priest" on a mission to get hoodlums to cleanse their souls. But last week in federal court, it was Towle's turn to make a confession.
For 12 years, he said, he did not tell anyone that a teenager had admitted to a murder for which two others are now serving time.
Towle, 65, testified that he kept quiet because he considered the 1989 confession by Jesus Fornes confidential. But once the priest learned his heart-to-heart talk could be central to an appeal by the two men who say they were falsely convicted in the 1987 slaying, he questioned whether it was a sacramental confession as defined by Roman Catholic law. He reached the conclusion that it wasn't, even though he had absolved Fornes of his sin.
Besides lending high drama to the case, the priest's decision to come forward has posed the question of what constitutes a confession in the Roman Catholic Church.
Prosecutors oppose the request for a new trial, saying eyewitness accounts and other evidence prove the two defendants are the killers.
They also say that Fornes' words are a theologically valid confession and are thus inadmissible in court under a state law establishing the "clergy-penitent privilege." Under the law, the privilege can be waived if the confessor agrees. However, Fornes is dead; he was killed four years ago.
A federal judge is expected to rule this week on whether the two men deserve a new trial.
Across the country, state courts have generally ruled that priests and other clergy are not required to disclose admissions made by congregants. Last month, for instance, a Washington state judge ruled that a jury may not hear a man's alleged confession to a church elder in a molestation case.
The disclosure by Towle was cleared beforehand by the Archdiocese of New York.
But Rev. John Beal, head of the canon law department at Catholic University of America, said the priest's testimony raises serious questions.
Was it a sacramental confession?
"If he gave him absolution, I don't know what else it could be," Beal said.
Beal said priests can take confessions in any setting, and granting absolution — "I grant you pardon and peace, in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit" — should have bound Towle to absolute secrecy.
The theological dilemma arose from the gritty streets of the South Bronx in the late 1980s. Fornes was a member of a street gang called the Wolf Pack.
"These were not churchgoing boys," Towle said. He said he considered himself Fornes' "street priest."
Towle described receiving a phone call from Fornes, then 16, summoning him to the teen's home. The despondent teenager told him that he and two others stabbed and beat to death a man who had attacked one of them during an earlier dispute. Fornes also allegedly said two defendants convicted of the murder, Ruben Montalvo and Jose Morales, were never there.
"It was a heart-to-heart talk where he was feeling very badly that two of his friends had been accused and convicted of something which he had done," Towle said.
"I am very careful about the word 'confession' because it can be used in many different ways," Towle said. "It was a heart-to-heart talk where he was feeling very badly that two of his friends had been accused and convicted of something which he had done."
Towle admitted under cross-examination that the blessing he "tacked on" at the end of the encounter was absolution.
At the priest's urging, Fornes revealed his story to an attorney for Montalvo and Morales just as the two were to be sentenced in 1989. But when called to testify, Fornes invoked the Fifth Amendment on the advice of his own lawyer. The priest also remained silent.
In an exchange of letters beginning in 1995, Montalvo asked Towle for help with his appeal, prompting the priest to seek the advice of the archdiocese legal department.
Towle told church officials that his quandary did not involve a sacramental confession, only a confidential conversation. So testifying for Montalvo is a matter of civil — not Catholic — law, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.
Zwilling said the archdiocese agreed that under the circumstances, the priest could make Fornes' statement public.
In court, Towle defended his interpretation of the conversation: "I am a well-trained theologian and a well-trained pastor, and I am in a position to make a judgment as to whether this could be divulged."