Catholics: La. Court Ruling Threatens 'Seal' of Confessional

Thursday, 10 Jul 2014 10:36 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A Louisiana court ruling that could force a priest to testify about a 14-year-old girl’s confession of being sexually abused has Catholics nationwide worried about the implications of a break in a sacred "seal" considered "absolute and inviolable."

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruling revives a 2009 lawsuit brought by the girl’s parents who argued the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, the pastor of a church in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, should have reported the alleged abuse, Catholic News Service reported. 

Bayhi faces automatic excommunication if he breaks the seal of the confessional – and contempt of court and jail if he refuses to testify.

"Confession is one of the most sacred rites in the Church," Catholic League president Bill Donohue in New York said in a statement blasting the decision.

"The Sacrament is based on a belief that the seal of the confessional is absolute and inviolable. A priest is never permitted to disclose the contents of any confession."

A Chicago-based organization that advocates for sex abuse victims said it knew of no cases in which a judge ever asked a priest to testify about what was said to him in a confession booth.

"I don't offhand know of another case like this," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests. "I think this kind of ruling is sort of made inevitable by decades and decades of church complicity in child sex abuse cases."

The Diocese of Baton Rouge, which posted the state Supreme Court ruling on its website Monday, is expected to ask for U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

"A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable," the diocese said in a statement.

"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."

The girl was allegedly kissed and fondled by a 64-year-old parishioner, who also pursued her with emails and phone calls, according to court documents. She said she told the priest three times in confession about the abuse, saying the man had "inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her that 'he wanted to make love to her,'" court documents stated.

The girl said Bayhi told her to handle the situation herself because "too many people would be hurt" otherwise, the court documents said.

She said when she asked for advice from the priest on how to end the abuse, "He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it," according to details in the state Supreme Court decision.

The alleged abuser died during the investigation of the claims.

The girl's parents won their case at the district court level about compelling the priest to testify, but lost in Louisiana's First Circuit Court of Appeals, before the state's highest court reversed and vacated the appellate court's decision, CNS reported.

"The seal of confession is one that can never be broken," Bayhi said in a statement, CNS reported. "Through its use the faithful must always be protected, so much so, that as a priest I cannot even say someone has come to confession, let alone divulge the contents of what was revealed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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