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Louisiana diocese denounces court for compelling priest to break seal of confession

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has denounced the Louisiana Supreme Court decision that compels one of its priests to testify in court about confessions he may have heard.

“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."

“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 July 7 statement. “Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal.”

“This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church,” it said, noting that a priest who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication.

“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 said.

According to the petition in the case, the alleged confessions were made by a minor child to the priest, and pertained to sexual abuse of the minor by another church parishioner. The statement concerns a lawsuit naming Father Jeff Bayhi and the diocese as defendants.

In the 2009 case, the plaintiffs, parents of the minor child, claim that the child told Father Bayhi during confession that she was being sexually abused by a member of the parish, a man who died later when under criminal investigation. The plaintiffs claim as well that Father Bayhi instructed her during confession to remain quiet about it and handle the problem herself. In addition, the lawsuit says that Father Bayhi did not report the alleged abuser to law enforcement based on information received in the confessional, asserting he would have been a mandatory reporter according to the Louisiana Children’s Code.

The suit compels Father Bayhi to testify as to whether or not there were confessions, and if the confessions did occur, to what the contents of the confessions were.

But according to the diocese, a priest is not even “allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling requires that a hearing be held in 19th Judicial District Court, where the suit originated, to determine whether or not a confession was made. It also reverses an earlier decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the original lawsuit filed against Bayhi and the diocese.

The appeals court had found that the alleged confessions were considered confidential communication, denoting that Father Bayhi would not be a mandatory reporter of abuse in this instance. It also ruled that the diocese should not have been denied a motion to prevent the minor from testifying about the confessions.

The Louisiana Supreme Court decision suggests that the seal of confession protects only the penitent, and that because the child has waived her right to confidentiality, the Court says Father Bayhi must testify.

It’s now up to the court to schedule the case to be heard again, which could take some time, diocesan spokesperson Donna Carville told LifeSiteNews.

Baton Rouge Bishop Robert W. Muench directed his diocesan pastors to read a shorter version of the diocesan statement at Sunday Mass on July 6.

Father Bayhi also prepared a letter to his parishioners for that Sunday along with the diocese’s statement, Carville said. “He said, “I want to notify my parishioners that this is happening,” said Carville. “That speaks to the type of man he is. He’s a pastor.”

“One of the great sacraments of healing in the church is the sacrament of reconciliation/confession,” Father Bayhi told parishioners and friends. “It has given hope and comfort to all Catholics throughout the centuries and continues to do so today.”

“The seal of confession is one that can never be broken,” he said. “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.”

Keeping parishioners apprised is necessary and the correct thing to do, Carville said, in keeping with being the Body of Christ. “We wanted to do what Christ would have done,” said Carville. “To react with compassion and with concern.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, weighed in on the case in a statement. 

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“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,” said Donahue.

“The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the free exercise of religion,” Donahue said. “Just as government cannot compel anyone to follow a particular religion, it likewise cannot prevent anyone from exercising the tenets of his faith.”

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

Calling the Supreme Court ruling an impingement upon the freedom of religion and a clear violation, the diocese stated the matter will be taken to the highest court in the land by the Church for the purpose of protecting its free exercise of religion.

“This matter cuts to the core of the Catholic faith,” the diocese said. “And for a civil court to inquire as to whether or not a factual situation establishes the Sacrament of Confession is a clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States. This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”

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