Diocese Protests Order to Break Confessional Seal in Abuse Case

Bishop Robert W. Muench of Baton Rouge, La., attends the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual fall meeting in Baltimore in November 2010. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has protested a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that a Catholic priest must either break the seal of the confessional in a sex abuse hearing or face jail time.

On July 7, the Baton Rouge diocese issued a statement protesting the ruling against Father Jeff Bayhi, who allegedly heard the confession of a 12-year old girl being sexually abused by a now-dead elderly member of his parish in 2008. If Father Bahyi testifies that the girl told him about instances of abuse in the confessional, he faces imprisonment under mandatory reporting laws concerning the sexual abuse of minors, but the court's ruling means he might also face jail time if he fails to testify. 

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“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” the diocese said. “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.”

The diocese implied that Father Bayhi, who is not personally accused of sexual abuse in the original lawsuit, would be willing to go to jail before revealing anything the girl told him in confession—an action that would result in his automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church under canon law.

“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,” the statement noted in regard to church teaching. “This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Although a District Court judge initially ruled that Father Bayhi had to testify, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it and threw out the lawsuit, setting up the Louisiana Supreme Court to reinstate the trial court’s judgment. In May, the state court ruled that Father Bayhi must testify about any confessions received at a future hearing to be held in the state capital's 19th Judicial District Court.

According to Louisiana Supreme Court docket number 2013-C-2879, the parents of the 12-year old girl accuse George J. Charlet, Jr.—a funeral home director who died of a heart attack in 2009—of sexual abuse while also naming Father Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge as defendants. The alleged inappropriate sexual activity occured while the man and girl were parishioners at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathoilc Church in Clinton, La. Under the mandatory reporting provision of the Louisiana Children's Code, the lawsuit alleges that Father Bayhi failed in his legal obligation to report the abuse.

Louisiana Supreme Court Judge John M. Guidry, who is not Catholic, wrote a concurring opinion in the ruling against Father Bayhi.

“Whether or not the communication was part of a ‘confession per se’ as that term is understood in religious doctrine, may be an ecclesiastical problem for the priest, but it does not appear to be relevant here to consideration of the meaning and intent of the Louisiana statutes involved in this case,” Judge Guidry wrote.

While noting that it rarely comments on pending legal cases, the diocese said it issued its protest last week because the media had asked for comment on the state court’s ruling and because the two previous decisions were already matters of public record.

“We contend that such a procedure is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U. S. Constitution,” the diocese noted of the high court’s decision. “The Supreme Court of Louisiana cannot order the District Court to do that which no civil court possibly can—determine what constitutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church. Indeed, both state and federal jurisprudence make clear that there is no jurisdiction to adjudicate claims that turn upon such purely religious questions.”

In addition to infringing on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the diocese said the decision violated the separation of church and state under the First Amendment. It also noted the decision could affect Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other clergy who receive confidential religious communications.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has declared its intention to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Pasinski
4 years 5 months ago
How this case plays out will be precedent setting. If it somehow reaches the Supreme Court, it will provide another test case in our current church-state dialogue. When I was in the seminary in the early 70's, we never even discussed such a possible scenario - naivete and willful ignorance? Whatever, the simplistic formulation of WWJD has some application here. Knowing only what is printed here, there is so much that needs more clarification yet... If your daughter "confessed (sic) that was sexually abused by someone, how would you expect the priest to deal with that? Tell her to tell her parents? Tell her to go to the authorities? I wonder what the advice given was...and how he lived with that knowledge if the abuse was continued????
Nicole Perez
4 years 5 months ago
This article fails to report that the child who gave the confession has waived her privilege and is seeking to have the priest confessor testify. The article also fails to state that the confessor allegedly told the child that the abuse "was her problem." For a different (and, in my view, a more complete and nuanced) account, see: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/louisiana-court-challenges-confessional-secrecy.

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