Did a Louisiana Court Order a Priest to Reveal Content a of Confession?
Earlier this month the Diocese of Baton Rouge issued a defiant statement vowing to appeal a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court that a priest must testify about an alleged Confession.
The case pits Church doctrine that priests may never reveal what is said in Confession, or even acknowledge a Confession has taken place, against state laws making it mandatory for clergy to notify police about suspected child abuse, as well as clergy confidentiality laws that protect only the penitent.
A flurry of media information and misinformation followed, some of it generated by the Diocese’s claim (not explicit in the Supreme Court ruling) that Fr. Jim Bayhi would be required to testify on the contents of an alleged Confession or Confessions.
What’s known about the case
The 2009 civil case concerns a minor girl and alleged abuse by an adult parishioner. According to the Times-Picayune, the original civil suit was filed by the parents of a girl who claimed that their daughter (then 14, now 20) confessed to inappropriate sexual touching with an adult man (then 64) and that the parish priest, Fr. Bayhi, should have reported what he heard to police by Louisiana law. The suit also named the alleged perpetrator, who had died of a heart attack, and the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which the parents claim should have trained the priest to report suspected abuse.
The case is sealed so few other details are available, although it’s known that someone reported the suspected to the authorities, and that the alleged abuser died while being investigated. In her deposition for the civil case, according to the Times-Picayune, the girl said that Fr. Bayhi told her to handle the matter herself because otherwise many people would be hurt, and to “sweep it under the floor.”
The girl intended to testify about the the exchanges in court and, according to the Supreme Court summary of the case, both the judge and prosecuting attorney said they realized this meant that Fr. Bayhi would refuse to speak. However, the diocese filed a motion to prevent the girl from testifying about the confessions. The District Court denied the motion, and the diocese appealed.
The Appeals Court ruled that the priest was not required to testify about anything related to the alleged confessions because he was not a mandatory reporter under state law, and that any communications during Confession were “clearly” protected by confidentiality laws. It also upheld the diocese’s motion to prevent the girl from testifying about the possible confessions.
This decision is what the Supreme Court overturned, sending the case back to District Court.
Seal of the Confessional and Louisiana Law
The Catholic Church forbids priests to reveal anything confessed to them, under any circumstances or for any reason, whether or not the penitent discusses them. Referred to as the “seal of the confessional,” this sacred bond has been acknowledged, though not always respected, by civil governments for centuries. A priest who breaks the seal incurs automatic excommunication, which can be lifted only by the pope.
Canon 983 of the Code of Canon Law states that “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”
Louisiana law, however, protects Confession and “confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in his professional character as spiritual adviser” only for the penitent. If the penitent says he or she no longer wants communication with a clergyman to be considered private, the state does not acknowledge a right to confidentiality for the clergy — much as a patient can waive doctor-client confidentiality.
In other words, the seal of the confessional exists to protect the Sacrament of Confession, all priests, and all penitents, and cannot be “waived”; while the confidentiality law for clergy communications in Louisiana exists to protect the privacy of penitents who want it protected, for as long as they want it protected.
The Louisiana case is further complicated because the girl and her family say that Fr. Bayhi was part of communications about the issue outside of Confession as well. He could presumably comment on those meetings or discussions (priests can speak about things heard in Confession if they were also heard outside of Confession, although in practice it can be difficult to do). Perhaps he meant to. But the family chose to center on the alleged Confessions.
Supreme Court ruling
The state Supreme Court ruled that Fr. Bayhi is, in fact, a “mandatory reporter” under Louisiana state law, and that confidentiality laws do not apply because the girl has already testified.
In Louisiana, all mandatory reporters, even clergy, are required to report abuse under a clause that reads:
Notwithstanding any claim of privileged communication, any mandatory reporter who has cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare is endangered as a result of abuse or neglect or that abuse or neglect was a contributing factor in a child’s death shall report in accordance with Article 610.
As a mandatory reporter, the Supreme Court said, Fr. Bayhi should have been required to testify and a court, not Fr. Bayhi or the diocese, should have determined whether or not what he knew was protected by clergy confidentiality law. All such questions balance the duty of the clergy with risk to the penitent, the Court said, and in this case:
… the question of duty/risk should be resolved by the factfinder at trial, particularly herein where there exists material issues of fact concerning whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report.
The Court reverse the appellate court’s ruling and remanded the case back to District Court.
Back to Square One
Unless the prosector’s plans change, when the case resumes at District Court case will hinge largely on the young woman’s testimony against one man who is dead, and another who cannot defend himself.
Her previous testimony does not paint Fr. Bayhi in a flattering light. She testified that he told her to to break off the inappropriate contact (kissing, fondling, and “seductive” emails) herself and to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
The seal of the confessional does not allow Fr. Bayhi to either corroborate her testimony or say it is not true, even to defend himself or someone else, or even acknowledge or deny that a confession or confessions took place.
In a statement prompted by a local television statement’s story, theDiocese of Baton Rouge said the priest will not testify and that the Diocese is prepared to fight the issue to the Supreme Court of the United States.
“The issue before the District Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and the Louisiana Supreme Court assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications,” the statement reads. “This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church… In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.”
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