When I was a seminarian in St. Benedict, Louisiana, I always thought the Sacrament of Reconciliation would be my favorite to celebrate, if I became a priest. The first time I encountered the seriousness of the Seal of Confession was with one of my good friends. We attended the same high school, and ended up going to the same seminary together; I later married, and he became a priest.
About six months after his ordination, I asked what celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation was like. He responded that it was powerful and humbling to see a person confess their sins, convert to the Lord, and receive forgiveness, all before his very eyes.
Since he was such a good friend, I immediately asked a question without really thinking of the appropriateness, “What are all the sins you have heard so far?” His response was simple, “I can’t talk about that.” I asked “Why?” and thought it may be an emotional topic that might have to wait until later. He responded, “Well, the seal…” and paused, looking at me as if I should have known. I knew that the Seal of Confession was very serious, but had no idea the extent of it until that moment.
Since then, a storm has erupted in the state where I attended seminary. Rev. Jeff Bayhi, a priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, is being pressured by the Louisiana courts to reveal the contents of a young girl’s confession.
The young girl states she went to Fr. Bayhi for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual guidance. She allegedly confessed that George J. Charlet, Jr. (now deceased), kissed her, touched her inappropriately, and stated he wanted to make love to her (Petition for Writ, page 9). She claims that Fr. Bayhi advised her to keep the matter to herself because “too many people would be hurt,” and then told her, “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it” (Petition for Writ, see also Appendix, 3a).
Fr. Bayhi did not commit any inappropriate acts towards this young girl. The reason for his inclusion in the lawsuit is his status as a mandatory reporter of child abuse. The young girl’s family insists Fr. Bayhi was required by law to report the incident to authorities, but failed to do so. The Diocese of Baton Rouge is responding that Fr. Bayhi is a mandatory reporter, except for instances where the Sacrament of Reconciliation occurs, when he is bound by the Seal of Confession to remain silent.
First, it would be a travesty and truly traumatic if Fr. Bayhi responded in the manner the young girl claims. Second, the only available testimony is that of the young girl. The priest, due to the Seal of Confession, is incapable of either corroborating or contradicting the testimony at all. He can in no way even defend himself, and is even incapable of declaring whether or not the Sacrament of Reconciliation occurred at all (Supplemental Press Release by the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi, page 2).
Canon Law states that “the sacramental seal is inviolable” and “it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in manner and for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, 983-984 and 1388). In addition, Canon Law extends the requirement for secrecy to an interpreter if one is needed. The priest is not only prohibited from stating the sins of a penitent person, but also from acting on the knowledge of the sins in any way. So, a priest would be incapable of firing a parish accountant even if the accountant stated in confession that he or she stole funds from the parish.
Louisiana law upholds respect for the Seal of Confession initially, “evidence may not be excluded on any ground of privilege, except in the case of communications between…a priest…and his communicant.” The first circuit court of appeals rendered judgement on October 21, 2013, dismissing the case against the priest as a result of this law that protects the seal.
On April 14, 2014, the appeals court’s ruling was reversed by the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The court cited the Louisiana Code of Evidence article 511 that indicates the privilege of secrecy belongs to the penitent only and not the priest. The law is written in such a way that the priest has no legal right whatsoever to withhold the contents of a confession, if the penitent waives their right to the seal. The girl in this particular case has waived her privilege to secrecy. Therefore, the courts state, the priest has to reveal the contents of the confession if asked in court.
Louisiana law indicates that the property of a confession belong to the penitent and not the priest. The question that is unclear for the courts is whether or not Fr. Bayhi was a mandatory reporter during the time of the Sacrament. An important fact is that the girl never spoke to the priest outside of the Sacrament. If she had, then Fr. Bayhi would have no excuse if it was not reported.
Motion on Limine, Feb. 19, 2013, page 67a of the Petition for Writ, offers a very interesting transcript between the priest’s legal team and the judges. Louisiana Law apparently contradicts itself on whether Fr. Bayhi was a mandatory reporter or not. Article 609 indicates that any mandatory reporter having information concerning child abuse, mental or physical, must report it in accordance with Article 610, notwithstanding any claim of privileged communication. So, the law ignores the privilege of the Seal of Confession there.
Here comes the contradiction: Article 612, subpart B, states: “The provisions of this Paragraph shall not require the disclosure of any communications between an attorney and his client or any confession or other sacred communication between priest, rabbi, duly ordained minister, or Christian Science practitioner and his communicant.” This is where the courts have trouble; the law is written in a manner that states the priest both must report and is not under obligation to report.
The first time a priest was requested at a trial to reveal the contents of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was People v. Philips in 1813 (William Sampson, The Catholic Question in America). In that case, the courts concluded that it would be a violation of the first amendment to require the priest to divulge the contents of confession. This is what needs to happen now.
January 20, 2015 the United States Supreme Court denied Fr. Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s petition to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision. This is not a ruling on the merits of the case and the Diocese is reviewing other constitutional challenges they may be able to bring to the court in defense of Fr. Bayhi.
I can understand courts having difficulties with interpreting laws that they are not allowed to alter themselves. The correct course of action here is for lawmakers to clarify the laws in protection of religious freedom. It is my hope that this case will ultimately be decided in favor of religious freedom. The contents of the confession belong to God, not the girl or the priest. The purpose of the seal is not merely meant to protect the privacy of the penitent—it is to protect all penitents of all times. The penitent has the security of knowing that their sins can never be revealed for any reason to anyone. This leads to a true freedom in going to a priest to confess any sin freely and openly to God without fear of it ever being revealed.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.