Fr. Jeffrey Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Louisiana, has personally made a solemn vow never testify and violate the sanctity of the seal of confession, if asked on the witness stand, about what someone may or may not have told him during confession.
Depending on the state or country, most places fully protect a Catholic priest from revealing the contents of confession.
State Supreme Court Judge Mike Caldwell said that a state law making it mandatory for a clergy to report sex abuse of minors clearly violates a priest’s religious freedom protections for confidential confessions.
The ruling involves a case of a girl, Rebecca Mayeaux, now 22 who as at 2008 was just 14 years. She said she told her parish priest, Bayhi (who was then, the parish priest of a Catholic Church in Clinton, some 35miles Northeast of Baton Rouge) in the confessional that she was abused by a 64-year-old, now-dead lay member of the parish.
The girl’s parents sued Bayhi and the Baton Rouge diocese for failing to report the abuse. The parents won at the district court level about compelling the priest to testify, but they lost in Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeals,
Mayeaux claims that the priest responded to the abuse report by telling her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” the Associated Press reports.
Fr. Bayhi said he has a duty to hold in confidence any information obtained during a confessional session and that he would face automatic excommunication if he violates that trust.
“If we ever violate the seal, it’s over. It’s finished,” he said in court, adding that he would “absolutely not” knowingly violate the seal of confession.
“If that’s not sacred, no one would ever trust us.”
A foundation doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. According to the seal of confession, Father Bayhi cannot even say if he heard the girl’s confession(s), and if he did, cannot divulge anything that was spoken of within the sacrament.
Most States provide for clergy-penitent privilege within rules of evidence or civil procedure. Parts of the Louisiana law grants an exception when abuse allegations are revealed during confidential religious communication such as confession.
Judge Caldwell’s ruling upholds the confidence and trust of a privileged confession. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason
“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Fr. Bayhi said when he left the courthouse.
Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge in a statement extended his sympathy to the plaintiff and at the same time his appreciation on the outcome of the ruling:
“I extend my compassion and offer prayer not only for the plaintiff who may have been harmed by the actions of a man who was not an employee of the church, but also for all who have been abused by anyone,” he said.
In appreciation of the ruling, he added, “the court’s decision to uphold the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is essential.”
The alleged abuser passed away in 2009.