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Confession to priest clears man of murder

A man convicted of murder has been released from prison after a Jesuit priest testified that another man had confessed the crime to him twelve years ago.

Jose Morales, 31, was convicted in 1988 for the stabbing to death of Jose Antonio Rivera in the South Bronx.

In a highly unusual step, Fr Joseph Towle last week took the witness stand in an appeal hearing after the Archdiocese of New York ruled that his actions could be central to an appeal against a life sentence.

The 65 year old priest kept quiet for twelve years because he considered the confession made to him confidential. But when he realised it was central to a federal court appeal, he questioned whether it was a sacramental confession as defined by Roman Catholic law, then went into the witness box.

Fr Towle described how back in 1989, Jesus Fornes, a sixteen-year-old member of a gang in his tough South Bronx neighbourhood, had told him that he was involved in the killing, and that the two men in jail for the murder had not even been at the scene.

Mr Fornes was killed four years ago. Mr Morales has now had his sentence quashed; the second man is still waiting for his appeal to be decided.

The case largely turned on the definition of what a religious confession was, and whether it was admissible in court.

Fr Towle, who admitted he gave the young man absolution, argued that their meeting was more like a heart-to-heart conversation than a traditional confession in a church.

Archdiocese of New York