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Media Bias & The Seal Of The Confessional Story

This might seem like inside baseball to some of you, but the above report from WBRZ, the ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge — if the video doesn’t embed, you can watch it here — is exactly the kind of thing that worries me so much about how this seal-of-the-confessional case is going to play out […]

This might seem like inside baseball to some of you, but the above report from WBRZ, the ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge — if the video doesn’t embed, you can watch it here — is exactly the kind of thing that worries me so much about how this seal-of-the-confessional case is going to play out in the media and in popular culture. It’s a good thing that it is impossible under libel law to libel the dead, or the family of George Charlet Jr. might have a case against the station for that biased report on the abuse allegations at the heart of a controversy with potential national implications for religious liberty.

Background: Rebecca Mayeux, now 20, claims that when she was 14, she was subject to groping and other unwanted sexual attention from Charlet, a much older man who was a prominent businessman and beloved community figure. At least some of the harassment took place on the grounds of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, where both families attended. Mayeux says on three separate occasions, she told Father Jeff Bayhi in confession that Charlet was coming on to her sexually, and that he told her this was her own problem, that she should sweep it under the rug. Mayeux eventually told her parents, who went to the police. Charlet died of a heart attack during the criminal investigation, which was dropped upon his passing.

Now, Mayeux has filed a civil lawsuit against Charlet’s estate, his family’s business, Father Bayhi, and the Diocese of Baton Rouge. She wants Fr. Bayhi to testify that he heard her speak of this in confession, and what the content of the confessions were. He refuses even to acknowledge that the molestation conversations took place, because to do so would be to violate the seal of the confessional, the rock-solid obligation Catholic (and Orthodox) priests have to go to their deaths before revealing to anyone what they learned in confession. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that under state law, Bayhi could in principle be compelled to reveal those conversations (or go to jail for contempt of court), because the law only recognizes the priest-penitent privilege as protecting the penitent — who, in this case, releases the priest from that privilege. Under Catholic canon law, the obligation is binding on the priest, regardless of what the penitent later decides.

As I’ve written in this space, it is vitally important for the cause of religious freedom that the Catholic diocese prevail, but from what I can tell, it’s going to be a tough road ahead for the diocese. The Church will have to argue that preserving the seal of the confessional is more important than the state’s interest in compelling a priest to be a mandatory reporter of child sex abuse allegations. In this culture, given how horribly the Catholic Church has performed on this front, that will be a very tough sell.

The WBRZ report is a prime example of the way the press is going to be stacked against the Church. Reporter Chris Nakamoto repeats Mayeux’s allegations as if they were established facts. Representative quotes from Nakamoto’s narrative:

This is a picture of the two during the time from the time Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were e-mails and Scripture. On three different occasions, Rebecca sought spiritual guidance through confession, from one of the men she respected most in her life, to guide her in the right direction.

… This is a homily Fr. Bayhi posted to YouTube during that same time, and appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux.

… As Rebecca looks back on what happened to her in one of the holiest of places…

Over and over, Nakamoto takes the plaintiff’s claims at face value, and repeats them as if they were established facts. To be fair, there are a couple of occasions where he frames things as “Rebecca says,” but the overwhelming impression one gets from this report is that the abuse happened, and Fr. Bayhi and the Church are covering it up.

We don’t know this. Mayeux may be telling the truth, but precisely the issue here is that under long-established canon law, Bayhi is not allowed to defend himself if it means breaking the seal of the confessional. Nakamoto did an atrocious job of explaining the theological complexity of this case, or even being fair to the priest, the diocese, and the accused dead man. The language throughout the report is loaded to favor the plaintiff, who granted Nakamoto an exclusive interview that led the evening local news. Nakamoto begins the report by calling Mayeux “intelligent” — as if that had any relevance to the truth or falsity of her claim. If she were a clod, would her testimony be any less valuable? This is about a reporter painting one side in a legal dispute in a positive light, even as the man she accuses is not around to defend himself, and Nakamoto doesn’t have to worry about a libel case being brought against him, because one cannot libel the dead.

The point here is this: If all you knew about this case was what you saw on WBRZ’s report, you would be fundamentally misled about the established facts, and the reasoning behind the diocese’s stance.

Again, I am not taking the side of Charlet, Fr. Bayhi, or the Diocese. I don’t know what really happened in this case, but I am afraid that moral panic over clerical sex abuse is going to cause us to do away with an important religious freedom. And it must be said that the Diocese of Baton Rouge is doing itself no favors by refusing to speak on camera about the case, instead sending a written statement to the TV reporter. Is it really that hard to send the reporter to a competent canon lawyer who can go on camera to explain the Church’s argument? The Church comes across in this long report as stonewalling.

My further digging indicates that it is not entirely settled, even within Catholic circles, as to whether or not the seal of the confessional can be lifted with the permission of the penitent. Father William Saunders says yes, a penitent may release the priest from the seal. Father Vincent Serpa, O.P., says no, a penitent may not. I welcome readers who know canon law, and can shed light on the Church’s view.

Here’s a 1998 Marquette Law Review article by Michael J. Mazza examining the status of priest-penitent privilege under state laws around the US. There’s a lot of variance (or was at the time the article was written), and it is not clear whether priests as well as penitents are protected by this privilege. On page 190 of the essay, Mazza says that courts have been highly reluctant to make clergy testify in cases like this, but he later adds that high-profile cases of sexual abuse can have the effect of changing the legal climate. This, says Mazza, is why churches have got to start making a positive case defending the importance of keeping the seal confidential, covering both parties.

Note well: Mazza wrote this four years before the Geoghan trial in Boston opened the floodgates of filth, showing how the Church covered up so much abuse by its own priests. One can well imagine how much less disposed courts will be today to give the Church the benefit of the doubt. Look at this TV station in Baton Rouge, reporting the story as if the allegations were established facts. This kind of thing shapes public opinion. One understands that the Diocese of Baton Rouge can’t discuss certain particulars of ongoing litigation, but it cannot afford merely to assert its rights without explaining why it’s so important to protect that seal.

Not only can the Diocese of Baton Rouge not afford to leave it at that, no diocese can — and no one who cares about protecting religious liberty can. The horrible behavior of the Catholic Church and its lawyers in the past puts we who wish to defend the seal — even ex-Catholics like me — in a difficult position, but the fight is important. I can’t cut-and-paste from the Mazza article, but you should read it. In it, he makes a constitutional case for why the priest-penitent privilege may apply to the priest as well as the penitent, and for why it should. Part of his argument is asserting that aside from therapeutic and spiritual reasons for keeping the confessional inviolable, the confessional must remain one of the few spaces left that is free from the intrusion of the state.

In the Mayeux case, if she prevails, where does that leave priests in the future who hear of potential crimes in the confessional, and don’t act on that knowledge because it’s under the seal? That leaves them extremely vulnerable to manipulation by penitents, as priests will have to worry that they will have heard something that may or may not be held against them in the future, depending on the desire of the penitent.

If Father Bayhi really did hear from 14-year-old Rebecca Mayeux that she was being abused by George Charlet, then he ought to have explained to her on the spot that he couldn’t act on that information unless she told him outside the rite of confession — and then he should have encouraged her to do so, and told her to go to the police. This would have been in 2008-2009, long after the Boston catastrophe sensitized everyone to the ugly reality of sexual abuse. Maybe — maybe — this was a colossal pastoral failure on Fr. Bayhi’s part. In its ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court kicked the case back down to a lower court to determine the facts in the case — facts that may ultimately be undiscoverable if they require Fr. Bayhi to break the seal.

If the facts are as Rebecca Mayeux alleges, then I hope Fr. Bayhi is held responsible for trying to cover up a prominent community figure sexually abusing her. It is hard for me to understand why a priest would have heard three times a girl asking for help, and not figured out a way to instruct her to get that information out to her parents or someone who could help her. Then again, the only people who know for sure whether or not she really told Fr. Bayhi these things in the confessional are Mayeux and Bayhi — and he doesn’t believe he is free to talk about them.

(By the way, in the WBRZ report, Nakamoto airs a clip from a Bayhi televised homily from around the time the alleged abuse was occurring, in which Bayhi took a hard line against forgiving-and-forgetting, as opposed to taking action, if a child was at risk. Nakamoto frames it as hypocrisy — but couldn’t it just as easily be seen as evidence that Bayhi is not the sort of priest who would sit on allegations of a minor being abused by an adult?)

Even if it allows a priest to get away with an attempted cover-up of abuse, I am confident that greater harm would come by compelling a priest to break the confessional seal — or to go to jail to protect it — to get to the truth in this painful matter. In any case, the Church has to realize that its fight to protect the seal is not just a matter for the courtroom, but also is something that takes place in the court of public opinion. It will not be able to count on the media to be fair and balanced. As for the rest of us, as much gratification as it gives people like me to see the Church held responsible for abuse cover-ups, let’s not forget that, to paraphrase Sir Thomas More in the Robert Bolt play, we must give the devil the benefit of the First Amendment for our own safety’s sake.




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