According to a Monday story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Louisiana Supreme Court has touched off a church vs. state controversy by ruling that a Roman Catholic priest must testify in a court case about the contents of a confession made to him by a 12 year old victim of sexual abuse. The unidentified victim is alleged to have made confession about another parishioner who “inappropriately touched” her some years ago. It is the position of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge that Church law is very clear that the seal of the confessional cannot be broken by any priest under any circumstances.
The ruling concerns a lawsuit brought against the diocese and Rev. Jeff Bayhi, the priest in question, which seeks damages as a result of the sexual abuse that only stopped when the alleged perpetrator died in 2009. There is no accusation that Bayhi committed any crime himself, just that he did not report the abuse as required by Louisiana law.
The suit claims that Bayhi advised the alleged victim to “handle the matter herself” under the theory that too many people would get hurt should the matter be made public. The abuse involved the older man touching and kissing the girl and announcing that he wanted to make love to her. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that since the girl has already testified as to the contents of the confession, the seal of the confessional does not apply and thus Bayhi must testify.
It is the position of the Catholic Church that the seal of the confessional is inviolate and that any priest who breaks it is subject to automatic excommunication. Thus Bayhi will be willing to go to jail rather than comply with the court order. The diocese has indicated that it intends to appeal the ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
The Catholic rite of confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation, is designed to allow Catholics to confess sins and receive absolution without fear of having such revealed to the general public. It has been Church practice since practically the beginning of Christianity and has rarely if ever been challenged by secular authorities. Complicating matters, however, is the Church’s history of concealing sexual abuse by its own clergy, a practice that is being rectified by Pope Francis, who recently asked for the forgiveness of victims of sexual abuse.