A recent Louisiana Supreme Court ruling may land a Catholic priest in jail for refusing to testify about a confession he may have heard several years ago, the Times-Picayune reports.
The plaintiffs in the case allege that their underage daughter mentioned during confession to Fr. Jeff Bayhi several years ago that an elderly parishioner inappropriately touched her, and that the priest failed to report it to the authorities.
The current Louisiana Children’s Code says that mandated reporters–people who have regular contact with vulnerable groups like children and are legally required to report signs of abuse– include “any priest…or other similarly situated functionary of a religious organization unless not required to report a confidential communication as defined in the Code of Evidence Article 511.”
The Code of Evidence Article allows exemptions for confidential communication “it is made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present” and notes that the privilege “may be claimed by the person or by his legal representative. The clergyman is presumed to have authority to claim the privilege on behalf of the person or deceased person.”
Fr. Bayhi is not accused of any physical or sexual wrongdoing himself, but refuses to confirm whether the girl, who was 12 at the time of the alleged abuse, did confess to him, and what the contents of the alleged confessions were.
The Louisiana Court holds that the privilege can be invoked only on behalf of the penitent, not on behalf of the priest. “If the penitent waives the privilege, the priest cannot then raise it to protect himself as he can only ‘claim the privilege on behalf of the person,’ not in his own right,” the ruling reads.
Catholic officials say this is a fundamental misunderstanding of confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation. In an unusual move, Fr. Bayhi’s diocese — which typically has a policy against commenting on legal cases — released a statement in opposition to the ruling.
“A priest is compelled never to break that seal [of confession],” it says. “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…. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication.”
“Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession… 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.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Catholic priest and blogger, explained that “in a serious situation the priest could also take other actions to implicate the guilty, protect the innocent and prevent a further crime without breaking the seal of the confessional… If a child molester confessed the priest could visit the home and without discussing the confession, inquire from other family members about the situation at home and give good advice for the protection of the child.”
According to the court’s ruling, Fr. Bayhi did exactly that: “Subsequent to these three alleged confessions, the abusive acts continued. According to the allegations in the petition and the deposition testimony in the record, subsequent ‘meetings’ were had—one between the priest and Mr. and Mrs. Charlet [the alleged abuser and his wife], and another between the Charlets and the minor child’s parents…concerning the ‘obsessive number of emails and phone calls’ between Mr. Charlet and the minor child and the seemingly inappropriate closeness between the two that had been observed by various parishioners.”
“It is revealing, I think, that for all the abuses and faults that priests have been charged with throughout the long history of the church, I am not aware of any historical period when a major complaint against the clergy was that they violated the absolute confidentiality of the sacrament of penance,” wrote theology professor Msgr. Christopher Walsh in his book about the sacrament.
“On the contrary, just as they have given their lives to celebrate and preserve the Eucharist, so too priests have gone to their deaths rather than reveal to demanding kings or imperious judges the secrets of a soul that they learned under the seal of the confessional.”