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,” said another longtime member.
Yet, some secrets are bigger than others.
On July 11, an Alcoholics Anonymous member and sponsor, Floyd Nadeau of Lewiston, met with police.
He told police that his sponsee, Bob Ryder, 20, of Lewiston, told him he had killed a woman and buried her body in the basement of his 417 Main St. home, according to a police affidavit.
Within hours of Nadeau’s report, police found the body of 38-year-old Danita Brown. Ryder was later charged with murder.
Nadeau had known about the death for two weeks, according to court records. But he held onto the information, reluctant to come forward because of his belief in AA’s confidentiality. He finally went to police after talking with his own sponsor.
AA confidentiality based on tradition
Legally, secrets among Alcoholics Anonymous members aren’t that secret.
The protections that apply to conversations with certain people — lawyers, doctors and clergy — do not apply to people in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Common practice and tradition, rather than law, keep their secrets, said a member who serves as AA’s public information chairwoman for Maine and New Brunswick.
“All we can do is ask,” said the woman, who did not want her name used. “Sponsors are asked ethically, by our traditions, not to divulge anything about a sponsee.”
Traditions don’t include criminal behavior, though.
“We warn newcomers, ‘If you divulge a criminal act, you’re putting yourself and everyone else in the room in jeopardy,’” she said. Most sponsors would go to police.
“By law, we would have to react,” she said.
A longtime member put it more bluntly.
“AA has no laws,” he said. “There’s no rules. There’s no governing bodies. None of us get paid.”
People who hear something in a meeting or in a conversation with a sponsor need to decide for themselves what to do, he said. And bad stuff will come up.
“This has to be looked at realistically,” he said. “This is not Utopia.”
On the other hand, most of AA’s secrets are more personal.
Part of a typical meeting includes frank personal stories, often looking at the damage done to families by alcohol-fueled neglect or affairs.
“Nobody wants that shit out there,” said the long-time member.
Law: Few secrets are safe
People have tried to keep AA’s discussions a secret from police and the courts.
In 2002, New York’s 2nd Circuit Court struck down a decision that compared Alcoholics Anonymous relationships to those of a parishioner and a priest. In that case, a murder was disclosed to several AA members; the talk wasn’t spiritual, the court ruled.
In Maine, discussion among Alcoholics Anonymous members has no legal right to secrecy, said attorney Paul Chaiken, a former president of the Maine Bar Association.
However, a growing number of groups are asking for confidentiality.
It’s widening the gray area where secrets lie, he said.
“You have to ask, ‘Who are you protecting? What’s the policy? What’s the rationale?” Chaiken said.
Many of the new people trying to protect secrets are counselors and therapists who may have licenses but lack some of the formal training of psychiatrists and lawyers, who have some legal standing for confidentiality, or the history of the clergy-penitent relationship, which protects conversations between a priest or minister and a parishioner in certain cases.
Adding to the gray area are differences in law — federal law is less broad in its protection — and the rules of evidence that maintain the confidentiality of some conversations may apply in the courtroom but not apply in some profession’s licensing boards, Chaiken said.
Ongoing and subtle changes in the law make confidentiality a hot topic in medical school and in ongoing training for doctors, said Dr. Michael Kelley, a psychiatrist at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.
It can be a chore to keep up, Kelley said.
The same goes for lawyers. The Maine Bar’s rules governing confidentiality go on for nearly 5,000 words, creating a maze of rules.
“You need the (client) to be comfortable that what was said was private,” Chaiken said.
Most exclusions are aimed at preventing harm to people who might be hurt if confidentiality were maintained, balanced by the need to preserve a client’s right to speak openly with a lawyer.
When Dr. Kelley meets with a new patient to begin one-on-one counseling, he starts with a warning.
“I need you to understand that everything we say is confidential with a couple of exceptions,” he says. “The main exception is if anybody is in danger or you, yourself, are in danger, then I have to break that.”
The mandate serves as a kind of escape hatch for someone who is both a dedicated professional and a decent citizen.
Secrecy is needed, Kelley said. Without it, some people will miss treatment.
“I’m a substance-abuse specialist,” he said. “If I report every person that ever says they drove drunk, guess what? Nobody’s going to come in and get help for their alcohol dependence or at least they won’t be honest about it.”
During confidential sessions, he has heard people confess to embezzlement, drug-dealing and fraud.
“Ethically, I’m going, ‘Oh my God. I know this person who has done this horrible thing,” he said. But unless he fears someone might come to harm, he cannot talk.
“It’s a moral quandary because on the one hand, if I report everybody who tells me anything illicit they have done, I’m not going to have any patients and they’re not going to get any help.”
The worse the crime, the tougher it can be to remain silent, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a doctor who would hesitate to report a murder,” Kelley said.
As secret as secret gets
If a conversation comes between a member of the clergy and a parishioner during the sacrament of confession, there are no loopholes. It’s as secret as secret gets.
“It’s the highest level of confidentiality and does not admit us any exceptions,” said Monsignor Marc Caron, who leads Lewiston’s Prince of Peace Parish.
“But I think it is often misunderstood,” Caron said. “It is not just any conversation. It is the conversation of a Catholic coming to the priest in order to confess their sins and receive forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. That level of confidentiality we would consider as being imposed on us by divine law, not even church law.
“The nature of that interaction in itself demands absolute and complete confidentiality, even after the person’s death,” Caron said. “Maine law, so far anyway, does see it as a protected form of speech. New Hampshire law, I believe, does not.”
If someone disclosed plans to hurt or even murder someone during confession, the priest would be bound by his oath to keep silent. And Maine law wouldn’t require him to speak.
But that’s not how the confessional works, Caron said.
“It’s about sins committed,” he said. “It’s about the past.”
But most of his discussions with parishioners are more comparable to Kelley’s discussions, with the same mandate to report threats of physical harm.
Caron respects his legal duty, he said, but such incidents are rare, he said. Most of his talks with people are about their day-to-day lives and family issues.
“They’re much more mundane and they’re much more about relationships,” he said. And if he hears that someone has committed a crime, he asks them to ’fess up.
“We say, ‘Listen, you’ve got to be honest with yourself and others about what’s going on,” Caron said.
‘You can be free’
Moments before the start of a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, as men made coffee and stacked literature on a table, a man raised a small poster with the words, “Think, think, think, think about it!”
For the hour that followed, guys talked about drinking and the damage that alcohol had wrought in their lives.
Though some of the men knew Ryder and Nadeau, nobody talked about the dead woman or the alleged confession. As an organization, Alcoholics Anonymous avoids controversy. It takes no outside donations and doesn’t comment on the news. Even its public information volunteers request anonymity from the news.
“AA is very general,” one volunteer said. “It’s the 12 steps and the 12 principals and the 12 concepts (forming the doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous) and that’s about it.”
What members do and say is up to them, the volunteer said.
The meeting gave answers, though. People talked about growing up and taking responsibility for their own actions.
After the meeting, a longtime member said that a member who commits a crime is encouraged to confess to the authorities. End the secrecy.
The reason is simple: An unsettled crime will make the alcoholism worse.
“Face up,” he said. “Our suggestion is you go face it and do whatever punishment is due.”
“Then you can be free of it,” he said.