BATON ROUGE, La. — Catholics are decrying a recent Louisiana Supreme Court decision that reaches into the most sanctified of church places, the confessional booth.
The ruling revives a lawsuit that contends a priest should have reported allegations of sexual abuse disclosed to him during private confessions and opens the door for a judge to call the priest to testify about what he was told. The lawsuit was filed by parents of a teen who says she told the priest about being kissed and fondled by an adult church parishioner.
If the priest were called to testify, Catholic groups say it could leave him choosing between prison and excommunication.
“Confession is one of the most sacred rites in the Church. The Sacrament is based on a belief that the seal of the confessional is absolute and inviolable. A priest is never permitted to disclose the contents of any Confession,” Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said in a statement this week blasting the ruling.
Catholic groups and a national organization that tracks church sex abuse cases said Thursday they weren’t aware of any other cases in which a priest has been compelled to discuss what’s said during a confessional. The local Catholic diocese said that the ruling violates constitutional separations between church and state and it will seek U.S. Supreme Court intervention.
At issue is a 2009 lawsuit in which the parents say their daughter’s sexual abuse was ignored by her local priest, the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, and the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
The lawsuit alleges that in the summer of 2008, a 64-year-old parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in East Feliciana Parish kissed and fondled the 14-year-old girl and continued to pursue her with emails and phone calls.
The daughter said she confided in Bayhi on three separate occasions in the confessional booth, telling the priest that the man had “inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her that ‘he wanted to make love to her,’” according to court documents.
In a court deposition, the girl said Bayhi told her to handle the situation herself because “too many people would be hurt” otherwise. She said when she asked for advice from the priest on how to end the abuse, “He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” according to details outlined in the Supreme Court decision.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t name people who say they were victims of abuse. The parishioner accused of the abuse died during an investigation of the claims.
Before the case went to trial, the diocese sought to prevent the parents of the teenager from using any evidence or description from the girl’s confessions. A district judge denied the motion, saying the testimony of the teenager was relevant and she was able to waive her own secrecy privilege.
But an appeals court reversed that decision and dismissed the claims against Bayhi and the church, saying the priest could not be required to report information confided to him in confession.
The state Supreme Court disagreed in a ruling issued in April and reaffirmed May 23, saying if the girl waived her right to keep her confessions confidential, the priest “cannot then raise it to protect himself.” The ruling allows evidence from the confession to be submitted — but it doesn’t necessarily require Bayhi to testify in the case.
The high court said the district judge should decide “whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report” the sex abuse and whether the information provided by the girl were “confessions” or just the relaying of abuse that should have been forwarded to authorities.
A trial in the case has been set for July 2015.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge, issuing a statement Monday for itself and Bayhi, said the ruling “assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications.”
Asked about other whether any similar rulings have been issued in other states, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights pointed to other court decisions that upheld the secrecy of confession.
A Chicago-based organization that advocates for sex abuse victims also couldn’t cite any cases in which a judge could decide what constitutes a confession or ask a priest to testify about what’s said during one.
“I don’t offhand know of another case like this. I think this kind of ruling is sort of made inevitable by decades and decades of church complicity in child sex abuse cases,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests.
Meanwhile, Catholics in Louisiana said a judge shouldn’t be meddling in the confessional booth.
“It’s a very difficult issue, but I believe in the sanctity of confession. And at the same time I feel greatly for the little girl,” said Mark Spansel, 58, of New Orleans.
Manolito Martinez, maintenance supervisor at St. Patrick’s Church in downtown New Orleans, said, “I was raised as a Catholic — that priests are the mediators between us and God. So whatever you confide in the priest remains with the priest.”