A core aspect of any 12 Step program is the notion of honesty to oneself, to one’s sponsor and to one’s home group. A critical part of step work includes the always unnecessarily dreaded and avoided 5th Step, in which we admit to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Being honest with others and ourselves is what keeps us sober.
The other side of this core element of the program is the expectation and respect each program member must give to statements and knowledge heard inside and outside the Rooms from other program members. However, in an age where privacy is of paramount concern, just how private are the communications between program members?
Anecdotal Evidence: Privacy is Possible and Promoted
Generally speaking, and feel free to vouch for this in the comments section, close confidants and sponsors in the programs have a strong track record for keeping personal information provided in confidence private. With honesty and anonymity as cornerstones of the program, grave deference is given to the confidential nature of communications between members. This process of self-revelation and benevolent criticism keeps the addict and alcoholic alive.
However, as we all may have accidentally done once before, slips of the lip do occur. Yet even in these cases, the revelation is generally accidental, totally lacking in malice and, realistically, does not cause more than a few momentarily ruffled feathers within a small circle of members known to one another. Given the potential benefits of long-term sobriety and recovery, as well as the long-standing favorable track record of privacy and trust between program members (especially between sponsors and sponsees), trusting others in the program is almost certainly a sign of growth in the program.
Legal Evidence: Privacy Is Permitted to an Extent
Members of the program engage in an exchange of information about themselves, as well as others in a very intimate manner at each meeting—especially during their 5th Step. Without explicitly stating such terms, individuals expressing confidential information about themselves within the Rooms or to their sponsor are discussing matters under reasonable privacy via acts of confidential communication. The expectation is that this communication is treated with the same confidentiality and deference as privileged communications would be treated between a client and an attorney, doctor or psychologist.
Unfortunately, this expectation is not reasonable, at least according to federal and several state courts. In terms of criminal matters, which vary from state to state, disclosures made as part of participation in a 12 Step program, whether in the Rooms or to a Sponsor, are not protected by law. Even worse, the recipients of these disclosures could be forced by the courts to engage in something known as compulsory disclosure. In short, the holder of potentially incriminating information could be compelled by the courts to disclose their knowledge of a given situation or face contempt of court charges (For more information, see: State of Maine v. Boobar 1994, People of New York v. Cox 1993, Rule 402 Federal Rules of Evidence). Again, state law varies, but communications within the Rooms or with a Sponsor are most likely not protected communications in light of most state civil case laws.
Choosing Confidants Wisely
In terms of a pragmatic assessment of privacy and AA, the possibility of communications amongst members becoming part of criminal and civil proceedings is incredibly small. As many of us come to realize, the skeletons in our closet that we swore we would take to the grave so to prevent personal ruin actually cause more harm to ourselves as secrets than they do as confessions. But using common sense and discerning whether another person is a trustworthy partner in the program is essential. In the vast majority of cases, disclosures never become public domain, but for some members who understandably want to guard their privacy and anonymity, choosing confidants wisely is a reasonable course of action.
By and large, the biggest concerns regarding privacy relevant to most members of the program include accidental breaches on social media, such as Facebook, whereby non-program members can generally discern by the nature of the postings who may be a member of the program. Fortunately, alternative recovery communities such as this exist to serve the desires of members to speak freely about their process in a private setting with other individuals without fearing a loss in privacy and anonymity.