(NOLA) - The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has issued a statement decrying a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that could compel a local priest to testify in court about confessions he might have received. The alleged confessions, according to legal documents, were made to the priest by a minor girl regarding possible sexual abuse perpetrated by another church parishioner.
The statement, published Monday (July 7) on the diocese's website, said forcing such testimony "attacks the seal of confession," a sacrament that "cuts to the core of the Catholic faith."
The statement refers to a lawsuit naming the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge as defendants and compels Bayhi to testify 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," the statement says. "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."
The state high court's decision, rendered in May of this year, demands that a hearing be held in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, where the suit originated, to determine whether or not a confession was made. It reverses an earlier decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing the original lawsuit filed against Bayhi and the diocese.
The case stems from a claim by parents of a minor that their daughter confessed to Bayhi during the sacrament of reconciliation that she engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with grown man who also attended their church. Court documents indicate the child was 12 years old at the time of the alleged sexual abuse.
A criminal investigation by East Feliciana Sheriff's Office into the alleged sexual abuse was ongoing when the accused church member died suddenly in February 2009 of a heart attack.
The civil lawsuit in question, filed five months later in July 2009, names the late sexual abuse suspect, as well as Bayhi and the Baton Rouge diocese, as defendants. The suit seeks damages suffered as a result of the sexual abuse, noting that abuse continued following the alleged confessions.
The petitioners claimed Bayhi was negligent in advising the minor regarding the alleged abuse and failed his duty as a mandatory reporter in compliance with the Louisiana Children's Code. It also holds the diocese liable for failing to properly train the priest regarding mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of minors. Defendants claimed, in addition to other points of law, that only the sexual abuse suspect was liable for the suffering the minor endured.
Bayhi acted appropriately in refusing to testify, the statement says, and the nature of "sacred communications" received during confession are confidential and legally exempt from mandatory reporting.
"This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church," it says, noting a priest or confessor who violates the seal of confession is automatically excommunicated, barring action from the Pope. The statement also says the church is willing to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"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 original petition filed in District Court remains under seal, the statement says, but the opinion issued by the appeals court and the writ opinion by the state Supreme Court are not. Though the diocese said it doesn't normally comment on pending litigation, it issued the statement Monday, spokesperson Donna Carville said, ahead of a news report by a local TV station on the matter in order to inform its parishioners of the church's position. The Rev. Paul Counce alerted St. Joseph's Cathedral churchgoers at Sunday mass on July 6 that the diocese would release a statement Monday on a lawsuit.
The sexual abuse was alleged to have occurred in 2008. Both the girl and the alleged abuser were members of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton, where Bayhi was a pastor. The petition alleged that on three separate dates in July 2008, the child told Bayhi a church member had inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her "he wanted to make love to her." Court documents also say the alleged abuser communicated excessively with the girl over email and asked that she keep their relationship private.
The child testified during deposition that Bayhi's advice to her was to handle the issue herself because "too many people would be hurt." Court documents also say she testified, "He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor."
The appeals court found that because the confession was "clearly" made during the sacrament of reconciliation, it was considered confidential communication; therefore the priest was not a mandatory reporter. It also found that District Court Judge Michael Caldwell erred in denying the diocese a motion to prevent the minor from testifying about the confession.
The Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling that the priest's confidentiality can only be claimed "on behalf of" the confessor, so the priest can't claim confidentiality to protect himself since the girl waived her privilege. It maintains that the confession, then, wasn't "privileged communication," so he should possibly be subjected to mandatory reporting laws.
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.