Diocese of Baton Rouge: Priest cannot testify about confession in abuse case

“This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church”

A confessional at the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The Diocese of Baton Rouge is protesting a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that the diocese contends requires one of its priests to violate the seal of confession.

In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that a hearing be held to determine whether or not Father Jeff Bayhi heard the confession of a then-12-year-old girl who claims to have told the priest that she was being abused by a man in his parish. The diocese, which is named along with Father Bayhi in a lawsuit filed by the child’s parents, said in a statement released yesterday (PDF here):

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.

The Times-Picayune has details on the 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 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. 

For its part, the Diocese of Baton Rouge emphasized, “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.


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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.