James Gill: Church fighting illusory threat

It may be regarded as bold to question the Baton Rouge Diocese in matters of Catholic doctrine, but here goes with a little devilment.

The diocese has just issued a statement that seems to misconstrue the rule that confessions are confidential. It gets some crucial facts wrong, too.

The statement came in response to a state Supreme Court order reinstating a lawsuit filed on behalf of a girl who claimed to have told her priest, Jeff Bayhi, that she had been repeatedly molested by a parishioner 50 years her senior. The girl, then aged 14, unburdened herself in the confessional.

The girl and her family, according to the diocese, want Bayhi compelled to reveal what she said there.

Their attorney, Brian Abels, says that is not the case.

The plan is for the girl to testify as to what she told Bayhi, and her right to do so seems clear enough — albeit not to the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession,” according to its statement.

But canon law, in declaring that the “sacramental seal is inviolable,” explains that means a priest is “absolutely forbidden” to “betray in any way a penitent.” The point of the confidentiality rule is thus to protect sinners if they wish to take advantage of it.

An article on the Catholic Education Resource Center website confirms that the right to secrecy resides in the sinner, who is free to waive it on his or her own account or even on behalf of the priest.

A priest “may ask the penitent for a release from the sacramental seal to discuss the confession with the person himself or others,” according to the resource center.

To suggest that the girl in this case is forever bound to secrecy is as perverse under God’s law as it is under man’s. That nevertheless was the diocese’s position after the girl’s parents filed suit in 2009 against George Charlet Jr., a funeral director and prominent member of the congregation at Our Lady of Assumption. The suit also sought damages from the diocese, because the girl claimed she had told Bayhi about Charlet’s lascivious attentions but he had failed to notify the civil authorities and the abuse continued.

The parents filed a complaint with the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office, and an investigation was underway when Charlet died. Just before trial was due to begin in the civil suit, the diocese filed a motion seeking to block any “mentioning, referencing and/or introducing evidence” about “any confessions that may or may not have taken place.”

The trial court denied the motion on grounds that, “as the holder of the privilege,” the girl was “entitled to waive it and testify.” The court noted that Bayhi “is not going to say anything about any confession.”

The court of appeal, however, decided that “any evidence, by anyone, regarding the occurrence of a confession” was inadmissible and dismissed all claims against the priest or the diocese.

The state Supreme Court reinstated them on grounds that “the privilege (of confidentiality) clearly belongs to the penitent communicant, not to the priest,” and that the girl could not be prevented from testifying about her own confession.

As to whether the priest had a duty to report the girl’s allegations, the Supreme Court punted. The Louisiana civil code requires a member of the clergy to “report a confidential communication” only if “a child’s physical or mental health or welfare is endangered as a result of abuse or neglect.”

What Bayhi should have done in his case is a “mixed question of law and fact” that is for the trial court to resolve.

That ruling came down in April, but the long delay did not make the diocese’s any more measured in its response. It promises that “the matter will be taken to the highest court in the land by the Church in order to protect its free exercise of religion.”

Seldom has a nonexistent threat been more resoundingly defied.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.