Priest fights witness subpoena in child sex abuse trial

Clergy member claims alleged victim's confession is confidential

ORLANDO, Fla. – Uncomfortable discussing a sensitive matter with her family, a teenage girl made an appointment with a priest to reveal a dark secret she had been carrying for years, according to prosecutors.

While taking part in the Catholic Church's Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly known as confession, prosecutors claim the girl disclosed to Rev. Vincenzo Ronchi that a relative had sexually abused her on several occasions beginning when she was 7 years old.

During that November 2014 confession, the girl reportedly urged the priest to keep their conversation private because she did not want her family or authorities to know about the molestation, court records state.

Two years later, however, the girl reported the sexual abuse to law enforcement officials.

As Loren Tim Burton now awaits trial on charges of sexual battery and child molestation, prosecutors say they need the priest's testimony to put the defendant in prison for the rest of his life.

"As in the vast majority of child sexual abuses cases, there were no witnesses to the abuse," prosecutors wrote in court papers.  "The only evidence the State has to corroborate the victim's testimony at trial is her 'outcry' statement (to Ronchi)."

The alleged victim, now an adult, has signed a waiver granting Ronchi permission to testify about their confidential conversation, court records show. But attorneys representing the clergy member are fighting to keep the priest off the witness stand, arguing that he is forbidden from disclosing anything discussed during confession.

"The Catholic Doctrine is clear that the violation of the Seal of Confession is a sin so significant it subjects the priest to excommunication," Ronchi's attorney wrote. "Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) sincerely believes that the testimony sought to be compelled in this case will substantially burden his free exercise of religion."

Last month, the judge presiding over Burton's criminal case ruled that the priest must testify in court that he met with the alleged victim and discussed the topic of sexual abuse.

According to the judge, that testimony is permissible because the priest reportedly disclosed that same limited information to the victim's mother and a family friend after the girl had notified them about the alleged abuse years after the confession occurred.

However, the clergy member will not be required to reveal any specific details of the confession, according to the judge's order.

In response, prosecutors filed a petition with the Fifth District Court of Appeal in hopes of compelling the priest to share everything he knows about the alleged abuse.

Attorneys representing Ronchi then filed their own appeal last week in an attempt to bar the clergy member from providing any testimony at all.

Child's relative arrested for sex crimes

In February 2017, more than two years after the alleged victim reportedly met with the priest, prosecutors say the teen revealed to her mother that she had been sexually abused by a relative.

As the family sought a restraining order against Burton, law enforcement officials launched an investigation.

According to prosecutors, Burton inappropriately touched the girl when she was 7 years old as the two rode together in a truck.

About six years later, the girl claims, she woke up in bed naked after drinking tequila with Burton.

"When she asked what happened, the defendant told her that he almost had sex with her but didn't because she threw up," court records state.

Deputies arrested Burton in May at the Winter Garden recreational vehicle dealership where he worked.

Prosecutors later charged Burton with capital sexual battery on a child under 12, a crime punishable by life in prison.

Burton is also facing charges of lewd or lascivious molestation and sexual activity with a child.

"My client has entered a plea of not guilty and we are currently awaiting a decision from the appellate court (about the priest's testimony)," said Burton's attorney, Trey Flynn.

Alleged victim waives confidentiality with priest

Prosecutors said that during confession the teen told the priest very specific details about the abuse she allegedly endured for years.

She also urged the priest to never disclose her confession to anyone else.

"Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) encouraged the victim to talk with her mother about the abuse as much as she could," prosecutors wrote.  "He told her that it was not her fault and that she was still a virgin.  Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) then said that although there was nothing for God to forgive her for, he had to take what she told him as a confession or he would have to tell someone."

At the time of her confession, the teen told the priest that the abuse had stopped, according to court records. But prosecutors claim Burton continued to sexually abuse the girl for another two years.

In August 2017, months after deputies arrested Burton, the alleged victim signed a waiver that gave the priest permission to disclose the details of her confession.

"I hereby waive any and all privilege attached to my prior communications regarding Loren Burton with Priest Vincenzo Ronchi and wish him to testify regarding these communications," the document states.

Priest claims testimony would violate clergy-penitent privilege

Under Florida law, certain professionals such as attorneys, accountants and psychotherapists are given the right to invoke privilege on behalf of their clients and patients that protects them from being compelled to disclose confidential information in court.

Florida law also establishes privilege between clergy members and people seeking spiritual counsel and advice.

"The penitent should have no reservations about offering confession," News 6 legal analyst Steven Kramer said. "For the church and the priest, this is one of the most sacred rituals with the Catholic Church."

In the court motion seeking to block Ronchi's testimony at trial, the priest's attorney argues that state law prohibits the government from compelling clergy members to reveal information discussed during confessions.

"The State is purportedly seeking testimony ... which is without question squarely within the privileged communications protected by (Florida law)," attorney Caroline M. Landt wrote.  

In response, prosecutors pointed out that the alleged victim signed a waiver releasing the priest from any confidentiality agreement.

"The Florida Legislature intended for the State to be able to compel a clergy member to testify regarding a communication when the communicant waives the privilege," wrote Assistant State Attorney Jenny R. Rossman.

"What the state is essentially arguing is, 'This privilege belongs to the penitent.  And if the penitent wants to waive privilege, the priest should go ahead and testify as to what was said (during confession) because the penitent is OK with it'," Kramer said.

Ronchi's attorney argues that clergy members have the legal right to invoke privilege regardless if they are given permission to disclose the private conversation.

"The statute specifically provides that this privilege may be claimed by Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) on behalf of the penitent," wrote Landt.

The priest's attorney notes that the Florida law allowing clergy members to invoke privilege is worded differently than statues addressing other privileged relationships, such as that between an attorney and client.

Quoting state statutes, Landt pointed out that privilege may be claimed by a clergy member "on behalf of the person," but privilege may be claimed by a lawyer "but only on behalf of the client."

"I think there is going to be a deeper examination of legislative intent," said Kramer.  "Was it intentional in leaving out those two words 'but only'?"

State claims religious interference is justified

In their court motion seeking to bar the priest's testimony, the clergy member's attorneys argue that even acknowledging the girl's confession would violate Ronchi's constitutional right to practice religion.

"The State seeks to coerce Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) to testify in violation of his religious vows - an act that will result in Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi)'s removal from the Roman Catholic Church. This is a clear infringement on his free exercise of religion," the motion states.

Besides violating the U.S. Constitution, the priest's attorneys claim such testimony would also violate Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under that 1998 law, the state cannot substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless there a compelling governmental interest in doing so and that it is the least restrictive means available.

"(Ronchi's) testimony is not the only evidence of communication," Landt stated.  "The same communication can be admitted through the testimony of the penitent."

"The suggestion by Counsel for Fr. Vincenzo (Ronchi) that the victim's testimony alone about her disclosure is sufficient evidence for the State at trial demonstrates a lack of understanding of prosecution of child sexual abuse," Rossman responded.  "After sustaining ten years of horrific acts of sexual abuse, the victim... deserves to have the strongest evidence put forth to the jury to determine (Burton's) guilt in this case."

In court papers, prosecutors repeatedly referred to the alleged victim's statements to the priest as a "confession." However, the state attorney's office questions whether the child actually took part in a religious practice.

"When a child discloses to her priest that she is the victim of sexual abuse, she is not seeking forgiveness for a sin.  She is seeking guidance and help," the prosecutor wrote.  "(Ronchi) specifically told the victim that the abuse was not her fault and that there was nothing for God to forgive her for, demonstrating that although he told her he was treating what she told him as a confession, she did not actually confess to a sin."

Priest, prosecutors appeal judge's order

Orange County Circuit Court Judge John Marshall Kest ruled in December that the priest will be required to provide limited testimony about his meeting with the alleged victim.

"Father Vincenzo (Ronchi) must respond to the subpoena and may be questioned about the existence of the confession, the identity of the penitent, and that the subject matter involved sexual abuse, as he waived the privilege regarding these statements by disclosing them to (the victim's mother and a family friend)," Kest ruled.  "However, the protective order is granted as to the content of any other communications between Father Vincenzo (Ronchi) and the victim during the Sacrament of Reconciliation."

Within weeks of the judge's ruling, the priest's attorneys and prosecutors filed petitions with the Fifth District Court of Appeal challenging the order.

"One of the few witnesses who can put the defendant away in this situation is the priest," said Kramer, who thinks the legal dispute could potentially be appealed to the Florida or U.S. supreme courts. "Because of the stakes here, no one is going to back off and this is going to go to the next level."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.