Catholic Scholar: State Can't Make Priest Reveal Confession

Wednesday, 06 Aug 2014 08:00 PM

By Sean Piccoli

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By ruling that a Louisiana priest may have to reveal what he heard and said in a confession, the state's highest court put human law in conflict with divine law in a case where the two cannot be reconciled, a Catholic legal scholar told Newsmax TV on Wednesday.

The Rev. Robert J. Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told "MidPoint" host Ed Berliner that "divine law . . . takes precedence over everything."

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The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed in a case concerning a parish priest in Zachary, La., and a local woman who, when she was 14 years old, told him in confession that she was being sexually abused by an adult male parishioner at the church.

The court's ruling leaves the priest, the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, conceivably facing one of two consequences: excommunication or jail.

The case, while far from over, continues amid a nationwide pedophile priest scandal that observers say could leave judges disinclined to side with the church.

The alleged victim, now 20, and her parents are suing both Bayhi and his superiors in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The family's civil suit — which seeks monetary damages — claims that Bayhi should have reported the abuse allegations to authorities, but instead he advised the girl to stay quiet.

The alleged abuser, who was also named as a defendant in the original 2009 lawsuit, has since died.

Bayhi could face jail time if he refuses to tell all in open court — and he has said that he will not testify — but a scenario that would put him on the stand and then behind bars is a long way off.

The state's high court did not compel his testimony. Instead, the justices said that a priest who hears a child-abuse allegation in confession is not automatically exempt from having to report it or testify about it. The high court then sent the case back to the trial court where it began.

That court will have to determine whether Bayhi was, in fact, hearing an actual confession — because the woman has argued that she was seeking help, not absolution — and whether the state's Child Code required him in this particular instance to go to the authorities.

Whether Bayhi must ultimately take the stand in the civil trial is also yet to be decided.

From the Catholic Church's perspective, it's an easy call.

"The priest is not allowed to speak about what he has heard," said Kaslyn.

"The issue is not stopping a crime," said Kaslyn. "Rather, it's the relationship between the indiviual who requests this sacrament of penance from a priest in the Catholic Church.

"Once the individual requests the sacrament, the sacramental seal — which is a matter not of human but rather divine law — enters in, so that the priest is not only not allowed to reveal anything he hears in confession, he's also penalized if he were to so reveal any information."

Kaslyn said the seal extends to "even the fact of whether or not an individual has gone to confession."

A person making confession is not bound to secrecy, and can give a priest permission to divulge what was said in the confessional.

But the defendants in the Louisiana case argue that a parishioner cannot force a priest to talk about a confession, as this lawsuit seeks to do. And a priest who is judged under canon law to have broken the sacramental seal can be excommunicated by the Pope.

Another "MidPoint" guest, lawyer Jamie Benjamin, said that coercing a priest's testimony also violates human law — specifically, the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]"

"The Supreme Court of the United States recognizes a freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the Constitution," said Benjamin, chairman emeritus of the First Amendment Lawyers Association and past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Benjamin said that Catholics "have a right to be able to go to confession without looking over their shoulder and worrying that whatever is said there is ever going to get out."

He said that principle is more important than "a civil money judgment."

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