• Twitter
  • Facebook
News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

Fess up

Here's a worrisome case, as clear a breach of the wall between church and state as we're ever likely to see:

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.

The post points out that the state of Louisiana is, using the threat of law, trying to force this priest to take an action that would get him kicked out of his church and, according to what he believes, damn his immortal soul. Isn't that exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to help us avoid?

On the other hand, lawyers don’t face eternal disbarment for testifying once a client has waived the privilege. Priests do, and face automatic expulsion from the Catholic Church for complying. There is nothing in church doctrine that requires a penitent to keep quiet about what transpires in the confessional, but the canon law is clear on this point. Can. 983 states that “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” The punishment for breaking the seal is explicitly noted in Can. 1388: “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [by the commission of the act] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”

That's what I get for letting TV and novel courtroom dramas inform my understanding of the legal system. I was under the impression that confessions of a past crime were inviolate, but if a crime was about to be committed, the priest was under the same obligations of good citizenship as the rest of us. That might be true for attorney-client and doctor-patient confidentialities, but certainly not for preists.

This is one of those "nobody wins" scenarios, isn't it? He speaks out, he's putting his eternal soul at risk. He keeps quiet, a child could be endangered. I imagine it's an even bigger dilemma in states that require any adult (not just child-care professionals and teachers) to report any suspicion of child ause or neglect (Indiana is one of them).