An interesting court case that went all the way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court involved the “Seal of Confession.” A 14-year-old girl said she went to confession to Fr. Jeff Bayhi from the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2008. She told Fr. Bayhi that she had been sexually abused. Now this 20-year-old plaintiff attempted to have the court compel testimony from Fr. Bayhi about whether or not there were confessions and, if so, what were the contents of those confessions.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge put out the following statement: “The case in question does not involve any charges against any clergy, religious or a paid staff member of the diocese. The Church has great compassion for those who have experienced such egregious misconduct.
“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).
“The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the seal of confession preempted the Civil Court from ordering the priest to testify about whether or not there was a confession and, if so, what was the content. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed the case against both Fr. Bayhi and the Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“The Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed all the First Circuit Court of Appeals judgment, reinstated the judgment of the trial court, and sent back for further proceedings in the District Court a hearing concerning whether or not there was a ‘confession.’ We contend that this 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.
“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession be absolute and inviolable. A priest takes an oath 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.
“A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved for forgiveness by the Apostolic See in Vatican City. In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.”
Alfred Hitchcock directed a 1953 movie with a similar theme. It’s called “I Confess” starring Montgomery Clift as Fr. Michael Logan, a priest in Ste. Marie Church in Quebec City. He employs German immigrants Otto Keller and his wife Alma as caretaker and housekeeper. Otto also works part-time as a gardener for a shady lawyer called Villette.
The priest is seen walking away from Villette’s house, where Villette lies dead on the floor. Shortly afterward, in the church confessional, Keller confesses to Father Logan that he accidentally killed Villette while trying to rob him. When the trial comes up, the priest is accused of the murder but cannot defend himself because of the Seal of Confession.
He is willing to go to jail and suffer the consequences of being falsely accused though he knows from the confessional who the real killer is. These situations do not happen often but every priest realizes the possibility of going to jail. It comes with the territory.
Posted on Fri, August 8, 2014
by Rev. Wilmer L. Todd