Reporting the Confessed Killer in Your Midst: An Ethical Dilemma That Isn’t

Pedro Hernandez, now under arrest for the murder of Etan Patz, the  6-year-old boy whose 1979 murder was a national mystery, confessed that he had strangled the child just a few years later to his prayer group at St. Anthony of Padua, a Catholic church in Camden, New Jersey.  No one, including Hernandez’s relatives who learned of his confession and the prayer group leader, reported the confession to authorities.

Hernandez’s sister, Milagros Hernandez, confessed what she described as a “family secret” to a reporter for the New York Daily News over the weekend, setting off “What would you do?” internet polls and blog posts, as if there was any question about the proper conduct for a family member or church group member who hears a murder confession. There is no question.  You report it. There are no debate issues, no competing considerations, no claims of loyalty or confidentiality.  It isn’t a Golden Rule dilemma, as in “Would I want someone to report me if I confessed to him in confidence that he had strangled a little boy?”  It isn’t a dilemma at all. There is only one right thing to do, and if you think otherwise, you missed a couple of key meetings when the ethics were being handed out.

This issue is so imbedded at the core of basic ethics that it should be taught as a hypothetical in the third grade, or perhaps earlier. Doing so might inoculate children against the “Don’t be a rat!” virus that infects too many of us early in life and is harder to vanquish than herpes. Among those so infected was the alleged child-killer’s prayer leader, Thomas Rivera, who told the Daily News that he didn’t contact police because Hernandez did not confess to him privately. He didn’t contact police because Hernandez did not confess to him privately????  This makes as much sense as saying “I didn’t rescue that drowning man because I’m a good swimmer” or “I believe Al Sharpton because I’m not an idiot.” If Hernandez had confessed to Rivera while he served in a clerical capacity, Rivera couldn’t report him, at least under the ethics of confession, because such a confession would be privileged. Rivera’s explanation means—well, what? That he assumed someone else in the group would do it? That confessions to prayer groups don’t count? No, what his absurd excuse means is that Rivera didn’t have the courage, principles, sense of civic duty or responsibility to do the right thing. What are the qualifications for prayer leaders at St. Anthony’s, that they can spell “prayer”?

By not reporting Hernandez, the family members and prayer group members placed every child the killer came in contact at mortal risk over three decades, and for all we know, he might have murdered some of them. Heck, for all we know, he might have confessed their murders to the same passive, ethically inert, tut-tutting, “confess all and you will be forgiven” rationalization grand masters too. There is a Golden Rule application here, and it is this: “If I were the parent of a child whose life is at risk as long as Pedro Hernandez is free, would I want someone who heard him confess to Etan Patz’s murder to report it?” Could there be an easier question?

Sorry. I have no sympathy, empathy or compassion for anyone…parent, sibling, teacher, best friend or the one the killer rescued from rabid dogs when they were kids—who hears someone confess to killing a child, and yet who cannot find the courage to subordinate his or her personal loyalty, obligations, religion or compassion to his duties as a citizen and member of the human race, and to do everything possible to ensure that the confessed murderer is apprehended, punished, and prevented from harming anyone else. I acknowledge the reasons why legislators have been reluctant to make it illegal for citizens , including family members, to fail to report a crime under such circumstances, but the fact that it is not illegal to keep a murderer’s secret does not make doing so more ethical, or less monstrous.


Facts: The Daily News

Graphic: Everett Collection

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

5 thoughts on “Reporting the Confessed Killer in Your Midst: An Ethical Dilemma That Isn’t

  1. Matthew 23.23
    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” i.e. there is no hiding behind their perception of religion and they will be judged accordingly for being such idiots.

  2. When people confess something in prayer groups, you never know whether or not to believe them. How would you know whether or not to take what they confess or brag about seriously? Some people can really fabricate the stories. I’ve heard some of them and didn’t believe a word of them. If you reported everything you hear in some of these groups, you’d be in the police department after every meeting.

    • Murder? How often do you hear confessions of murder? I think a confession of a child murder is a justifiable trigger for a 911 call, don’t you? Maybe terrorism, serial rape and “I have a girl chained to the wall in my basement” too. If you really hear THOSE frequently, I’d recommend finding another prayer group. Fast.

  3. Seriously. If it’s not a privileged discussion, then admissions of VIOLENT FELONIES should always be reported. How is this even a question? Because he didn’t murder one of the prayer group’s children, it’s okay?

    Wow. Engage brain, people.

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