Louisiana Case Questions Validity of the Seal of Confession; Expected to go before SCOTUS

by Sofia Infante


The Diocese of Baton Rouge is appealing to the US Supreme Court following a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court concerning whether Father Jeff Bayhi has to testify concerning the content of a confession where a minor allegedly relayed to Fr. Bayhi that she was sexually abused at the hands of one of his parishioners. Back in May, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that since the girl in question has decided to disclose part of her story she has waved her rights to confidentiality and, thus, that Fr. Bayhi is obliged by the Louisiana law to disclose the content of the confession to the court. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Diocese of Baton Rouge called the state Supreme Court’s decision an “assault on Church teaching.” A statement released in July by the diocese stated, “The issue before the District Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and the Louisiana Supreme Court assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications (Confession/Sacrament of Reconciliation).”

Church doctrine holds that what has been shared during the Sacrament of Reconciliation must remain confidential by the priest who heard the confession. The priest is under strict orders not to break the seal of confession even under threat of imprisonment; to do so would result in immediate excommunication. Louisiana law states that a “member of the clergy” must report all cases of alleged sexual abuse, unless the disclosure is “confidential,” private, and “not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in the furtherance of the purpose of communication.” The crux of the case rests on whether the young girl’s decision to disclose her story affects the status of the conversation between her and Fr. Bayhi. The diocese stressed that, “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.”


In May 2014, a state appeals court agreed with the Church, ruling that Fr. Bayhi would not be compelled to testify about the content of the confession or whether the confession even occurred. However, the State Supreme Court overturned the appeals court’s decision and ruled that Fr. Bayhi would have to testify about the young girl’s confession. The Court ruled that since the girl shared the contents of her conversation, Fr. Bayhi could no longer invoke the Seal of Confession against the mandatory reporting laws. The Diocese of Baton Rouge was expectedly displeased with the decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court, as the diocese’s appeal put it, “The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision cannot stand … It conflicts with long-standing authority of this and other courts and threatens Church autonomy.” It stressed that “the matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith as it allows the state to override the religion’s own determination of what its beliefs and practices require.”


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