Fr Anthony Kohlmann is one of the outstanding American Jesuits of the 'Restoration generation'. He had joined the Society in Russia, at the event of its partial Restoration in 1801. He would serve as novice master in America and also the first president of Georgetown College, however a central element of his legacy was a court case that attracted international interest, in which he defended the absolute seal of the confessional. On this day he was acquitted by Mayor de Witt Clinton who said, 'It is essential to the free exercise of a religion, that its ordinances should be administered – that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected. Secrecy is of the essence of penance. The sinner will not confess, nor will the priest receive his confession, if the veil of secrecy is removed . . .' This was the first legal affirmation of confessional privilege in American history, and a key moment in Americas tradition of freedom of religion,
Fr Kohlmann was a pioneering priest in New York - where the numbers of Catholics was rising fast, almost all of them immigrants. The 'Papist Preachers' were held in suspicion, even as Catholicism was becoming more and more established. The case involves two parishioners of Fr Kohlmann who was serving at St Peters, the first Catholic church in New York. At the centre of the case was a jewel theft, the victim, a Mr Keating, had reported the theft to the Police. When the thief confessed the crime to Fr Kohlmann, he ensured that restitution took place, personally delivering the jewels back to their rightful owner. When Mr Keating, satisfied, requested that the police drop the case, they insisted that he revealed the identity of the man who had returned the Jewels.
The case moved from police interrogation, to a grand jury proceeding, finally ending up in Manhattan's Court of General Sessions. Some of the trustees of St Peter's were lawyers and impressed upon Fr Kohlmann the chance he had to establish a legal precedent and refuse to the name of the penitent. In a satisfying ecumenical twist, Kohlmann's defence lawyer was an Irish Protestant named William Sampson. He was a remarkable man, who had been exiled form Ireland and England for defending Irish Catholics against discrimination. At the end of the trial he published an account of it under the splendid title, The Catholic Question in America: Whether a Roman Catholic Clergyman be in any case compellable to disclose the secrets of Auricular Confession.