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Breaking the Confessional Seal

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A little over a week ago, I published a column on about a great Supreme Court victory for religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case. This week, Catholics faced an equally disappointing setback for religious liberty from the Supreme Court, albeit a case with far less media coverage.

Simply put, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a ruling that would allow judges to force priests to reveal what they heard from people during a private, closed-door confession. This is very disturbing for Catholics, as it could leave priests in a situation where they are forced to choose between prison (for violating a court order to testify) or excommunication (for violating their oath to never reveal the details of a private confession).

The case that resulted in this ruling was a 2009 lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. A 14 year old girl stated that she confided in Fr. Jeff Bayhi on three separate occasions in the confessional booth about the details of a sexual relationship with one of the adult lay parishioners. The individual that the girl alleged was involved in the relationship has since died, but a district judge never-the-less issued an order that required Fr. Bayhi to testify in the case and report what the girl had told him. An appeals court reversed that decision and stated that a priest could not be required to report information confidentially confided to him during reconciliation. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court has now overruled the appeals court and stated the priest "cannot... raise [the confessional seal] to protect himself."

Catholic groups in both Louisiana and nationally have decried that decision. Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, noted "Confession is one of the most sacred rites in the Church. The Sacrament is based on a belief that the seal of the confessional is absolute and inviolable. A priest is never permitted to disclose the contents of any Confession" Mark Spansel, a New Orleans Catholic, noted "It's a very difficult issue, but I believe in the sanctity of confession. And at the same time I feel greatly for the little girl.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also pointed to other court decisions that upheld the secrecy of confession. A Chicago-based organization that advocates for sex abuse victims also couldn't cite any prior cases in which a judge could decide what constitutes a confession or ask a priest to testify about what's said during one. "I don't offhand know of another case like this." admitted David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests.

While its unfortunate what happened to the girl in this case, the ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court makes this even worse by placing Fr. Bayhi is in an impossible position. Even if a false allegation were made about something he “heard” in a confessional booth, he could be defrocked by defending himself and disputing the testimony in court. A priest cannot, under Catholic canon law, reveal what he learned in the confessional, from anybody. Unless this decision is reversed, Fr. Jeff Bayhi will have to go to jail to protect the seal of the confessional, even if a person falsely claims they made a confession to a priest, or reports the details of the confessional incorrectly. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruling is a serious breach of the freedom of religion in America.