The Louisiana Supreme Court And Its Attack On Religious Freedom

Religious freedom has become somewhat of a national, polarizing issue. And the Louisiana Supreme Court is bringing the issue back home as they demand that a Catholic priest testify in court about a confession he had, which would force him to break Catholic doctrine or face legal action.

Rev. Jeff Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge are defendants in a case in which a 12 year old girl was allegedly sexually abused by another church parishioner back in 2008 at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton. The confession by Bayhi, according to the Supreme Court, can only be claimed on behalf of the confessor. Therefore, Bayhi cannot claim confidentiality because the girl waived her confidentiality privilege.

The Louisiana Supreme Court said that Bayhi’s confession with the girl was not “privileged communication,” however an appeals court found the opposite. Because the girl could have allegedly confessed to Bayhi in the sacrament of confession, the appeals court ruled that is was “clearly” confidential communication.

Organizations, along the way, have essentially attacked the Catholic priest for simply following Catholic doctrine, as a priest or confessor who breaks the seal of confession is automatically excommunicated with barring action from the Pope.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization known as SNAP, issued a release Monday (July 7) to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune regarding the Louisiana ruling, which it called “unusual.”

“This is what happens when Catholic officials conceal child sex crimes for decades — they lose credibility among judges,” SNAP Director David Clohessy said. “And this is what happens when Catholic officials deliberately and deceptively exploit confessional confidentiality.”

The organization did not take a position on the specific ruling in its statement but points out that Catholic officials have in the past claimed conversations about abuse were confessions in order to cover-up the truth. “We hope that’s not the case here,” Clohessy said.

But, the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, which is being held liable for allegedly “failing to properly train the priest regarding mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of minors,” is fighting back.

In a statement released on the matter, the Diocese says it does not normally comment on pending legal cases, but since opinions by the appeals court and the Supreme Court of Louisiana are public knowledge, it is a different ball game.

The issue as it relates to the “Church defendants” (Fr. Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge) attacks the seal of confession and the attempt by the plaintiffs to have the court compel testimony from the priest, Fr. Bayhi, as to whether or not there were confessions and, if so, what the contents of any such confessions were.

A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. 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.

This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved for forgiveness to the Apostolic See in Vatican City, Italy.

In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.

The Diocese said the issue cut to the “core of the Catholic faith, and for a civil court to inquire as to whether or not a factual situation establishes the Sacrament of Confession is a clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States.”

This matter is of serious consequence to 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. In other words, Protestant ministers, Jewish Rabbis, clergy of the Muslim religion, etc. all counsel and receive sacred communication of a confidential nature which are covered by these statutes.

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, more particularly, has violated the Establishment Clause and the separation of Church and State under the first amendment. 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.

Louisiana law states that a person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another person from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in his professional character as spiritual adviser. As for the accusation that Bayhi is mandated to report sexual abuse, even if heard during the seal of confession, the law states that clergyman are not required to report if the information was gained through a confidential communication.

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