Is AA protected like a religious confessional?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on August 26th, 2008 - Last updated: October 2nd, 2023
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Dear Stanton:

I know that you aren’t my personal lawyer but you have given me so much info that I just have to ask…Do you know anything about the Paul Cox case in New York? I heard on the news that he was released from prison for murdering two people because his confession was obtained in AA, and that this was equivalent to a religious confession to a priest. So, can I use this (maybe not as a citation but to further make my point) to show that my evaluation as an alcoholic was illegitimately based on someone’s observance that I attended meetings and occasionally identified as an alcoholic (I know, STUPID!).

Respectfully and gratefully,
Heather Wilder of Alaska

Paul Cox is the guy who confessed to bludgeoning to death two people he didn’t know who moved into his old house, and then confessing to some AA mates.

The attorney Robert Isseks, who was responsible for landmark decisions in New York forbidding the state to compel DUIs or prison inmates into 12-step programs (at least without offering alternatives), represented Cox on an appeal of his murder conviction. The conviction was tossed out on the grounds that Cox’s admissions were like confessions to a cleric! I view this decision as an abortion.

The courts have ruled, correctly, that the state cannot force individuals into AA or 12-step programs because of their religious content. That is a long way from saying that AA deserves the same protection of privilege as a religious confession! Furthermore, the stupidity of this decision is likely to invite ridicule of the AA-as-religion stand.

Your position that your statements that you were an alcoholic in AA shouldn’t be used to prove that point, on the other hand, is absolutely defensible.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Even though the state can’t force people to attend AA, the fact that you were attending for ostensibly therapeutic reasons should offer you privilege (confidentiality) around your statements about yourself (and I mean when these don’t involve crimes up to and including murder, but only concern your own being)
  2. The situation was coercive — in that environment you were not free to say that you didn’t think you were an alcoholic and the pressure against such a statement is incredible.

So, no, your “confessions” about alcoholism should not and cannot be used against you in a court of law, and, yes, Paul Cox should still be in prison.

Your pal,

Further Reading

* This decision was overturned in 2002 by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that Cox’s statements did not meet the standards of New York’s religious confessional privilege, since it was not clear he “made them for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance,” as this privilege requires. Cox was not freed during the appeal, and remains in prison.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


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