The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has issued a statement decrying a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that could compel a local priest to testify in court about confessions he might have received. The alleged confessions, the petitioner claims, were made by a minor child to the priest regarding sexual abuse by another church parishioner.
The statement refers to a lawsuit naming the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge as defendants and compels Bayhi to testify whether or not there were confessions “and, if so, what the contents of any such confessions were.”
“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolutely and inviolable,” the statement says. “The position of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi is that the Supreme Court of Louisiana has run afoul of the constitutional rights of both the Church and the priest, more particularly, has violated the Establishment Clause and the separate of Church and State under the first amendment.”
The state’s high court decision, rendered in May of this year, demands that a hearing be held in 19th Judicial District Court, where the suit originated, to determine whether or not a confession was made. It reverses an earlier decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the original lawsuit filed against Bayhi and the diocese.
The entire statement by the Diocese of Baton Rouge can be found here.
The case involves a minor child who claims that she told her priest, Fr. Jeff Bayhi, that she was being sexually abused by a member of the parish, a man who later died while under criminal investigation. The plaintiff claims that Fr. Bayhi told her to keep quiet about it and handle the problem herself, because too many people would be hurt if she went public. This, plus the fact that he did not report the alleged abuser to police based on information received in the confessional, forms the basis of her lawsuit.
Fr. Bayhi is in an impossible position. He cannot under canon law reveal what he learned in the confessional, from anybody. The plaintiff could be making it up, but if he defends himself by disputing her testimony, or if he were to say that she was telling the truth, he would be defrocked. The seal of the confessional is absolutely sacred.
But according to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling, under Louisiana law, a priest’s allegiance to confidentiality of the confessional only protects the penitent. Because the plaintiff has waived her right to confidentiality, the Court says Fr. Bayhi must testify. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the sacrament of confession is for the priest; he cannot, under severe ecclesial penalty, tell anyone what he learned in the confessional. Period. The end.
Unless the state Supreme Court is reversed, Fr. Bayhi will have to go to jail to protect the seal of the confessional, even if he is innocent of the accusation.
It strikes me immediately that this must be unconstitutional — but I could very well be wrong. According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), the priest-penitent privilege is defined by state law, and it varies from state to state. The Louisiana Supreme Court may well have given the only ruling they could have, given how the state defines the priest-penitent privilege (that is, as a protection for the penitent, not necessarily for the priest).
I welcome the expertise of lawyers who read this blog. This is a very serious situation. I take no position on whether or not the priest handled the particular situation in the parish wisely or justly, but let there be no mistake: the seal of the confessional must be inviolable. The relationship between a priest and a penitent can only take place in the security of confidentiality given two both parties.
In Australia recently, the Anglican Church recently revoked the seal of the confessional for serious crimes. There is now no reason to believe that people guilty of serious crimes can get the spiritual help they desperately need. One would expect that a priest who hears the confession of a criminal would do everything he could to lead that criminal to go to the police and confess to his crime. Now, if you are an Australian Anglican guilty of a crime, but as yet undiscovered by police, you’re on your own; you don’t dare tell your priest.
Again, I’m eager to learn from lawyers who read this blog whether or not the priest here is likely to go to jail, or if he and the diocese are protected by the First Amendment. God help us all if he is not. Even if the plaintiff is telling the truth about the priest advising her in the confessional to sweep it all under the rug, which would make the priest is a scoundrel, the religious freedom principle at stake here is so important that even a scoundrel priest must be defended.
This, from the Times-Picayune story, is something to keep in mind:
“This is what happens when Catholic officials conceal child sex crimes for decades — they lose credibility among judges,” SNAP Director David Clohessy said. “And this is what happens when Catholic officials deliberately and deceptively exploit confessional confidentiality.”
The organization does not take a position on the specific ruling in its statement but points out that Catholic officials have in the past claimed conversations about abuse were confessions in order to cover-up the truth. “We hope that’s not the case here,” Clohessy said.
I’m not sure that this particular case turns on the credibility of Catholic dioceses before courts. If you read the state Supreme Court’s decision, the justices do not say that the priest or the diocese lacks credibility; they are applying the law as written. Still, Clohessy’s remarks contain a stinging truth: this case will play out in an environment in which Catholic bishops and their clergy have lost a tremendous amount of sympathy with the public. Make no mistake about it: whether you are angry at the Catholic clergy over the abuse scandal or not, we who care about religious liberty have to put aside our anger and stand by the priest and the diocese in this case.
It really is that important.