Supreme Court Asked to Defend Seal of Confession in La. Case
In May, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the seal of confession did not shield a priest from mandatory-reporting laws.
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling that a diocesan priest may be forced to break the seal of confession.
“This case concerns who — the Church or the state — gets to determine the meaning, content and requirements of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation — one of the Church’s most sacred and central practices,” the diocese’s appeal read.
Back in May, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a priest of the Baton Rouge Diocese, Father Jeff Bayhi, could be forced to testify in court about a supposed confession made by a minor allegedly regarding her sexual abuse at the hands of a parishioner. A state appeals court initially ruled that the alleged confession was “confidential” and thus Father 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 Father 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.”
However, the high court ruled that Father 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.
In the appeal, the diocese stated that even to admit the conversation took place — much less reveal its alleged contents — would involve Father Bayhi breaking the seal of confession, which no priest is allowed to do, even under threat of civil penalty or imprisonment.
The existence and/or contents of the alleged conversation is “knowledge that, under Church law, he [Father Bayhi] is absolutely forbidden to share with others for any reason under penalty of automatic excommunication,” the appeal stated.
“The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision cannot stand,” the appeal stated. “It conflicts with long-standing authority of this and other courts and threatens Church autonomy.” The diocese has previously emphasized that the priest is under the gravest of oaths not to reveal the contents of a confession or if the confession even took place.
“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 foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” the diocese stressed, also saying that the “matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”
In a Sept. 4 statement, the diocese said the court’s ruling “strikes a very hard blow against religious freedom and one which the diocese and Father Bayhi feel compelled to vigorously protest.”
The diocese also spoke out against the court’s “unprecedented” ruling that the trial court decide “whether or not a sacrament actually took place.”
The appeal stated, “Doing so allows the state to override the religion’s own determination of what its beliefs and practices require and destroys the sacred seal of confession in the process.”