Baton Rouge: Priest Won't Break Seal of Confession to Testify on Abuse Claim

Paul Lagarde | July 11, 2014 | 12:20pm EDT
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Fr. Jeffery Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, La., and its mission, Our Lady of the Assumption, is also CEO of Closer Walk Ministries. (YouTube)

( The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge says that a priest who was ordered to testify in a civil case by the Louisiana Supreme Court would go to prison before violating the seal of confession.

The diocese issued a statement criticizing the May ruling, which mandated that a hearing be held in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court to determine if a female minor told her confessor, Fr. Jeffery Bayhi, that she had been sexually abused by an older parishioner.

At the hearing, Fr. Bayhi would be required to testify about the existence and content of a confession made to him, which the diocese says would violate his sacred obligations as a Catholic priest.

“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,” the diocese stated.

“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 diocese stated that the Church would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be to “protect its free exercise of religion.”

“This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church,” the diocese stated. “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 July 2009, the parents of the female minor filed a civil suit naming the sexual assault suspect, George J. Chartlet, Jr., then a 64-year-old parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Clinton, who has since passed away, Fr. Bayhi, and the diocese as defendants.

The lawsuit seeks damages suffered from alleged sexual abuse of the girl by Chartlet in 2008. It also claims that Bayhi failed in his duty as a mandatory reporter under the Louisiana Children’s Code, noting that the abuse continued after the minor said she first told Bayhi about it during the Sacrament of Confession.

Confessional room. (AP)

The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the original lawsuit on the grounds that because the communication during confession was confidential, Bayhi was not a mandatory reporter.

However, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision in May, stating that the privilege of confidentiality can only be claimed “on behalf of the person" (penitent). Since the female minor had waived her privilege, Fr. Bayhi could not claim confidentiality to protect himself from testifying, the court ruled.

But the diocese says that Bayhi acted appropriately in refusing to testify, stating that “sacred communications” such as confession are confidential and exempt from mandatory reporting laws. "Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession," it said.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, issued a statement earlier this week defending the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi. He also criticized the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling, arguing that it denies Bayhi the freedom to practice his religion.

“As a result of this ruling, Fr. Bayhi may now have to choose between violating his sacred duty as a priest and being excommunicated from the Church, or refusing to testify and risk going to prison,” Donohue said.

“By deciding that Fr. Bayhi must choose between his faith and his freedom, the Louisiana Supreme Court has endangered the religious liberty of all Americans.”

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