Two real-life examples of how confidentiality in A.A. is treated in the eyes of the law:
LEWISTON — An Alcoholics Anonymous member’s story began with the arrival of a Lewiston police officer.
A uniformed cop trying to find somebody — apparently a suspect in a crime — marched into the middle of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He told the group who he was looking for and asked if they’d seen him.
“This is an anonymous program,” the member told him. “No one’s going to tell you if he’s here or not.” A moment later, the frustrated officer walked out, and the meeting resumed.
The suspect had been there the whole time, seated in the front row.
“It was his choice to identify himself or not,” the member said. And each person attending the meeting chose silence rather than break with AA’s 76-year history.
People who attend are anonymous. And what’s said among its members is secret.
“It’s commonly accepted that you don’t go blabbing around what you’ve heard,”
The second example is the one of Paul:
In 1988 Paul, while heavily intoxicated, murdered Drs. Lakshman Rao Chervu and Shanta Chervu. Sometime in the spring of 1990, after another night of binge drinking followed by another alcohol-induced blackout, Cox recognized the severity of his drinking problem. With the encouragement of a girlfriend, he began to attend A.A. meetings.
Several months after joining A.A., Paul reached the Fourth and Fifth Steps of the Twelve-Step Program. After an A.A. meeting one night, he drove to the home of his then- girlfriend Jessica, also an A.A. member. In a fit of tears, he admitted that he thought he had murdered the Chervus. Jessica said that she did not believe him capable of such a crime. She recommended he talk about his fears with Mr. C, his “sponsor.”
Paul told Mr. C about the incident and after some two weeks and much consultation Mr. C informed the police. In his statement he said: “One night Paul called me up in the middle of the night . . . . He was having trouble writing his fourth step and I said: “What’s the problem? And I remember specifically, ironically saying, how bad could it be, you didn’t kill anyone, did you? And then there was a long pause on the phone . . . .”
Paul had also spoken about the matter with other members of A.A. In 2001 Judge Charles L. Brieant, Jr. ruled that the evidence used against Paul was all based on information Paul shared with A.A. members which, in his opinion, was privileged on the basis of cleric-congregant communications which was not allowed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judge had referenced another court case which ruled that nobody was allowed to be forced to attend A.A. meetings as A.A. was considered a religious organisation and this would be in violation of the freedom of religion.
This ruling was later overturned and Paul’s conviction was confirmed.
Two things can be learned from the above. The first is simple and may belong to the list of things we are powerless to change: The U.S. courts don’t have a clue about what A.A. is.
The second is worthy of more consideration:
Even though A.A. is a program of anonymity and we assume, demand even, that fellow members in the program observe the highest level of confidentiality with regards to what is heard, shared and seen in the rooms this is not always respected by the laws in our societies. The above examples both take place in the United States of America. A research in to how other countries has not been conducted and would complicate matters even worse.
Besides A.A. being a program of anonymity it is also a program of honesty. If our members desire to be able to free themselves of the obsession to drink they should do a thorough house-cleaning which includes admitting our mistakes to God, to another human being and also to the parties involved. The only exception to the above is when doing so would harm others. It is not clear from the court documents if Mr. C had advised or encouraged Paul to turn himself in for the crime he committed. In theory this is what the sponsor should have done. We can not, however, judge the actions of the sponsor solely on the above information. It could well be that Mr. C was fearing for his own life if he confronted Paul with himself. Mr. C is, after all, also an alcoholic and has to guard his own sobriety. Otherwise he is of no help to others in the program.
But if we dig a little deeper and consult the Big Book, ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, we can read the importance of the fifth step on the first two pages of the chapter ‘Into Action’. On the next page, number 74, the book explicitly recommend to: think well before we choose the person, or persons, with whom to take this intimate and confidential step. Those of us belonging to a religious denomination which requires confession must, and of course, will want to go to the properly appointed authority whose duty it is to receive it. Further down on the page it is suggested to approach our doctor or psychologist if we cannot find anyone else we can trust.
Our big book says the following about step 5:
If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking. Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods. Almost invariably they got drunk. Having persevered with the rest of the program, they wondered why they fell. We think the reason is that they never completed their housecleaning.
As alcoholics we must be able to unconditionally trust the confidentiality of the person we do our fifth step with. Without this we will never be able to completely rid ourselves of the horrible obsession to drink. Over the years it has become a custom and practice that the fifth step is to be done with our sponsor but that is not what our approved literature specifies. If we consult A.A.’s Pamphlet: Questions & Answers on Sponsorship we learn that at no point it is expected nor suggested for this to be done.
Over the years we have heard horrible accounts of sponsors breaking anonymity of their sponsee which include sharing information from the fourth step with people outside of A.A. without good reason, only for gossip. A.A. as a whole does suffer from these matters as the success and credibility of the program and of the fellowship gets undone. It is our duty and responsibility to safeguard the fellowship and A.A. as a whole. If we find ourselves in a situation in which we cannot guarantee this trust we should inform our fellow member, encourage them to find a better close-mouthed person and walk away immediately. Otherwise this will jeopardize our recovery, that of our fellow newcomer as well as the integrity of our society.
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
― William Shakespeare