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Louisiana Supreme Court rules local priest must testify about confessions

Louisiana Supreme Court rules priest must testify about confessions.
Louisiana Supreme Court rules priest must testify about confessions.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge published a statement Monday denouncing the decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that would compel a local priest to testify about confessions he may have received. According to the Diocese, forcing this testimony attacks the Sacrament of Confession and cuts to the core of the Catholic faith. Rev. Jeff Bayhi was called to testify in a lawsuit as to whether or not there were confessions and, if so, what the contents of what these confessions were.

The NOLA Times-Picayune reports Louisiana’s High Court's decision calls for a hearing to be held by 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge to conclude whether or not a confession was made. This reverses an earlier decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals which dismissed the original lawsuit filed against the Rev. and the Diocese. Bayhi refused to testify saying the sacred communications received during confession are confidential and legally exempt from mandatory testimony.

According to legal documents the alleged confessions were made to Rev. Bayhi by a minor girl and related to possible sexual abuse committed by another church parishioner. The girl’s parents claim their daughter confessed to Bayhi during the Sacrament of Reconciliation that she was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with grown man from their church. The child was 12 years old at the time of the alleged sexual abuse.

The accused sexual abuser died in 2009 of a heart attack. At that time the criminal investigation by East Feliciana Sheriff's Office into the alleged sexual abuse was ongoing. The civil lawsuit names the late sexual abuse suspect, as well as Rev. Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, as defendants. The petitioners claimed Bayhi was negligent in advising the girl and seek damages do to the suffering which occurred as a result of the sexual abuse, noting that abuse continued even after the child’s alleged confessions.

The suit claims Bayhi failed his duty as a mandatory reporter in compliance with the Louisiana Children's Code. The Diocese is being held liable for failing to suitably train the priest in the required reporting of sexual abuse of minors. In the Roman Catholic Church a priest who violates the Seal of Confession is automatically excommunicated.

According to the Church, they are prepared to take this issue to the U.S. Supreme Court saying, "For a civil court to impinge upon the freedom of religion is a clear violation and the matter will be taken to the highest court in the land by the Church in order to protect its free exercise of religion.” The Diocese also said, “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 separation of Church and State under the first amendment."

“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the Seal of Confession is absolute and inviolable. Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent…This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The alleged sexual abuse is said to have occurred in 2008. Court documents also say the alleged abuser inappropriately touched and kissed the child and he told her he wanted to make love to her. The child supposedly told Bayhi the abusive church member communicated excessively with her through email and told her to keep their activities private.

The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals found that District Court Judge Michael Caldwell erred in denying the Diocese a motion to prevent the minor from testifying about the confession. Since the confession was made during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the court felt it should be considered confidential communication. Once considered confidential, the priest was no longer a mandatory reporter.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the priest's confidentiality is something that could only be claimed by the confessor, meaning the priest can't claim confidentiality to protect himself. The girl waived her privilege. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling, once the child waived her privilege of confession, the information was no longer considered “privileged communication." The priest would now be subjected to mandatory reporting laws.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) pointed out that in the past Catholic officials have used the claim of confessional privilege in order to cover-up the truth. SNAP Director David Clohessy said, "This is what happens when Catholic officials conceal child sex crimes for decades, they lose credibility among judges. This is what happens when Catholic officials deliberately and deceptively exploit confessional confidentiality."

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