After the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a priest may have to testify about an alleged confession, the Diocese of Baton Rouge said that this demand “assaults” Church teaching and is unconstitutional.
“The issue before the District Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and the Louisiana Supreme Court assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications (Confession/Sacrament of Reconciliation),” said a July 7 statement from the diocese.
In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that the priest in question, Fr. Jeff Bayhi, may be subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding sexual abuse, and cannot invoke the privilege of confidentiality regarding an alleged confession made to him about sexual abuse by a young girl.
The diocese explained that a priest is under the gravest of obligations not to reveal the contents of a confession or if the confession even took place. He cannot do so even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty, and incurs automatic excommunication if he breaks the “seal of confession.”
“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” the diocese stressed.
“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.”
A state appeals court initially ruled that the alleged confession was “confidential” and thus Fr. Bayhi did not have to testify in court as to its alleged contents or whether it even took place.
However, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying that the seal of confession did not shield Fr. Bayhi from mandatory reporting laws.
Louisiana law states that a “member of the clergy” must report allegations of sexual abuse, except in the case of “confidential” conversations made in private “and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.” In addition, a priest “is presumed to have the authority to claim the privilege” of confidentiality “on behalf of the person or deceased person.”
The high court ruled that Fr. Bayhi can only invoke confidentiality if the girl refuses to disclose their conversation, and since she waived her confidentiality privilege, he is subject to the mandatory sexual abuse reporting laws.
By saying that a civil court can determine whether or not a confession took place, the court is in “clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States,” argued the diocese.
“This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”