BENEFIT OF CLERGY: A privilege claimed by the medieval Church, as part of its general plea of immunity from secular interference. It allowed members of the clergy to have their trial for offenses with which they were charged, not before any secular tribunal, but in the bishop's court. In England this covered practically all cases of felony except treason against the king, and by the reign of Henry II it had given rise to great abuses. In many cases grossly criminal acts of clerics escaped unpunished, and other criminals eluded the penalty of their acts by declaring themselves clerics. The question was one of those on which the quarrel between the king and Becket reached its acute stage; and by the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164; see BECKET, THOMAS) Henry attempted to deal with it by decreeing that clerics accused of crime were to be first arraigned in the king's court, which might at its discretion send them to an ecclesiastical court. If convicted here and degraded (see DEGRADATION), the cleric was to lose his benefit of clergy and be amenable to lay justice. Edward III extended the privilege in 1330 to include all persons who could read (see CLERK); and it was not until the fifteenth century that any very definite regulation of this dangerous latitude was arrived at. Later statutes guarded against the evasion of their provisions by expressly declaring that their operation was without benefit of clergy," and the privilege was finally abolished in 1827. There are a few early cases of its use in the American colonies, especially the Carolinas and Virginia; but an Act of Congress put an end to it here in 1790.