It’s a long-standing tradition: What’s revealed to a priest in the sacrament of confession cannot be repeated or shared with anyone else. They call it the Seal of Confession. Up until recently, the law accepted this as moral and desirable.
But that tradition has now been called into question and the Supreme Court may end up ruling on it.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the State of Louisiana Supreme Court, in which local priest Father Jeff Bayhi was punished for failing to report the sexual abuse of one of his young female parishioners, which the child in question allegedly disclosed during a confession in 2008. The abuser (another parishioner, not a priest) is now dead, but the girl’s parents have sued him — as well as Father Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge — for the priest’s failure to report the abuse to authorities, as per the state’s mandatory reporting laws. The family alleges that Bayhi’s silence allowed the abuse to continue until the abuser died.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision gives some of the case’s history. Before the initial trial began, the Church filed a motion to keep any mention of these confessions out of the trial. The lower court dismissed this motion; the teenager held privilege and was entitled to waive it if she wanted. The appellate court reversed this decision, finding that Bayhi was not legally required to report the abuse because the Seal of the Confessional is legally protected by confidentiality laws.
The state Supreme Court was asked to determine whether Bayhi could be compelled to reveal whether or not his young parishioner came to him in confession and what (if anything) she confessed. The justices determined that the girl had the right to waive her confidentiality privileges, meaning the Church could not keep her testimony out of the trial if she wanted to speak. Nor could the priest cite confidentiality as a reason to not testify once the girl herself had waived the privilege.
Moreover, the court noted that a clergyperson has a mandatory duty to report any suspicious interactions he observed outside of the confessional, as well as reports of abuse or criminal activity gained through pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, where confidentiality has limits. Priests can also ask the penitent to repeat the information outside of the confessional, freeing themselves to report. The decision argued that Bayhi’s behavior should be examined in a court of law, not presumed legal and dismissed out of hand.
Needless to say, the Church didn’t like that. The Baton Rouge Diocese chose to respond by playing the same old, shabby, overplayed religious freedom card. And, as usual, that involves placing the laws of the Church above the laws of the land and the rights of actual people:
Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession… This matter is of serious consequence for all religions, not just the Catholic faith. The statutes involved in this matter address ‘sacred communications’ which are confidential and are exempt from mandatory reporting. 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.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge almost certainly moved to exclude all mention of the confession from the trial to protect its reputation. This may be related to the Church’s flourishing reputation as an institution that protects abusers, or it may just be because Bayhi was so callous in his advice about the abuse. The Court reports that, according to the teenager’s deposition, Bayhi told her “she needed to handle the situation herself” and advised her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement in which it pointed out the Church’s shoddy track record on abuse reporting and reminded readers that, in past cases, Catholic officials have falsely claimed that reportable conversations with young parishioners were confessions in order to get around mandatory reporting laws. While they profess to “hope that is not the case here,” the director of SNAP pointed out,
This is what happens when Catholic officials conceal child sex crimes for decades — they lose credibility among judges. And this is what happens when Catholic officials deliberately and deceptively exploit confessional confidentiality.
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