US court rules that priest must break seal of confession

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A Catholic priest in the diocese of Baton Rouge faces a court order to break the seal of confession, after a decision by the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

According to the The Times-Picayune of Greater New Orleans, the case stems from a claim a minor's parents that their daughter confessed to the Rev. Jeff Bayhi during the sacrament of reconciliation that she engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a grown man who also attended their church. Court documents indicate the child was 12 years old at the time of the alleged sexual abuse.

A criminal investigation into the alleged abuse was ongoing when the accused church member died suddenly of a heart attack.

A later civil lawsuit named the deceased sexual abuse suspect as a defendant, as well as Bayhi and the Baton Rouge diocese. The suit seeks compensation for damages suffered as a result of the sexual abuse, noting that abuse continued following the alleged confessions. It also seeks to compel Bayhi to testify whether or not there were confessions "and, if so, what the contents of any such confessions were."

The petitioners claimed Bayhi was negligent in advising the minor regarding the alleged abuse and failed his duty as a mandatory reporter in compliance with the Louisiana Children's Code. The defendants claimed, in addition to other points of law, that only the sexual abuse suspect was liable for the suffering the minor endured.

The child testified during deposition that Bayhi's advice to her was to handle the issue herself because "too many people would be hurt." Court documents also say she testified, "He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor."

The appeals court found that because the confession was "clearly" made during the sacrament of reconciliation, it was considered confidential communication; therefore the priest was not a mandatory reporter.

But the Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling that the priest's confidentiality can only be claimed "on behalf of the person confessing”, so the priest can't claim confidentiality since the girl waived her privilege. It maintains that the confession, then, was not "privileged communication," so Bayhi should be required to testify about whether or not the alleged victim informed him about the alleged abuse, with a view to determining whether he broke mandatory reporting laws.

A statement published on the diocese's website said forcing such testimony "attacks the seal of confession," a sacrament that "cuts to the core of the Catholic faith."

"A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable," the statement says. "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, and more particularly, has violated the Establishment Clause and the separation of Church and State under the first amendment."

Bayhi acted appropriately in refusing to testify, the statement says, and the nature of "sacred communications" received during confession are confidential and legally exempt from mandatory reporting.

"This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church," it says, noting a priest or confessor who violates the seal of confession is automatically excommunicated. The statement also says the church is willing to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. "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."

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