Will a priest be forced to testify about what a girl told him in private conversation?
Father Jeff Bayhi could soon find himself on the witness stand, facing questions about what a teenage girl reportedly told him in the confessional six years ago about an adult male parishioner allegedly molesting her.
"If indeed this comes to pass, the priest will have to remain silent. He would simply have to say, ‘I can’t answer that question.’ He would have to risk going to jail," said Father Michael P. Orsi, a former chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria Law School in Naples, Fla.
Father Bayhi, a native of Baton Rouge, La., is a defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by the girl’s relatives, who argue that he gave the girl bad advice and failed to comply with Louisiana’s mandated reporter laws by not notifying authorities about what she told him in the confessional in July 2008.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, in overturning an appellate court ruling, recently determined that the girl’s lawyer can present evidence about the alleged confessions at trial. The Supreme Court also said the trial court should convene a hearing to determine whether a valid confession was actually held in order to decide whether the priest’s conversations with the girl are privileged.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, last week issued a forceful statement that challenges the notion that a secular civil court has the competency to define a valid sacramental confession.
"We contend that such a procedure is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court of Louisiana cannot order the District Court to do that which no civil court possibly can—determine what constitutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church," the diocese said, adding that the matter has serious consequences to all religions.
The diocese also said it will take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to protect the Catholic Church’s "free exercise of religion."
The specter of a government branch pressuring a Catholic priest to break the seal of confession—a canonical offense that carries an automatic penalty of excommunication for a priest—has drawn strong responses in Catholic circles.
There is growing pressure in various countries to force priests to violate the seal, said Jeffrey Mirus, a philosopher and president of Trinity Communications, the nonprofit that runs the website CatholicCulture.org.
"Although this is primarily coming up in matters of sexual abuse, where the Church has greater vulnerability, it has sometimes been proposed for capital crimes, such as to prevent a murderer from killing again," Mirus said. "The pressure grows as culture secularizes and religious faith wanes—and as modern man assumes increasingly that he knows best, affording less and less respect to spiritual values and traditional values."
Mirus added that a priest cannot give any indication that he knows anything about a confession, including who confessed to him.
"The penitent, of course, is not bound by the seal. He or she can talk to anybody at any time about what was confessed and what the priest said," Mirus said. "But the priest can say nothing. Were the priest even to come out of the confessional at the end of his time there, see a penitent in the Church, walk up to him and say, ‘That was a good confession, Joe,’ he would be violating the seal. He must give no indication at any time, even to the penitent himself, that he is aware of the confession or of who has confessed to him."
Father Orsi told Aleteia that a court order compelling the priest to testify about sacramental confession would constitute a "blatant attack on the Catholic Church."