Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge warns: Sanctity of confessional at risk in lawsuit

The Diocese of Baton Rouge warned Monday the sanctity of the confessional is under attack by a recent Louisiana Supreme Court ruling the church says might force a priest to reveal in court what was privately told to him.

The case involves a young girl who claims she was sexually abused by a now-deceased church parishioner but that her confession to a local priest fell on deaf ears.

The decision resuscitates a 5-year-old lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and others, and gave the girl, now an older teenager, the green light to testify and introduce evidence of “her own confession.”

At the same time, the state high court sent the case back to 19th Judicial District Court Judge Mike Caldwell, saying there is still a dispute “concerning whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report” sexual abuse allegations.

In a strongly worded two-page statement posted to its website, the Baton Rouge Diocese says the religious implications cannot be overstated.

“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 statement reads.

“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. Pursuant to his oath to the church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him,” the statement continues.

“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.”

Bayhi acted appropriately, the statement adds.

The diocese, which said it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, added that the matter “is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”

The statement from the diocese refers to “the attempt by the plaintiffs to have the court compel testimony from Fr. Bayhi as to whether or not there were confessions and, if so, what the contents of any such confessions were.”

But Brian Abels, an attorney for the girl’s parents, said Monday, “We are not trying to do that.”

“No court has ordered him to testify about what he heard,” Abels said.

Abels said the issue has always been about the girl’s testimony.

“Our client can testify about what she said, regardless of where she said it,” he said in summarizing the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Abels noted that the priest’s deposition has been taken. The diocese, however, said Bayhi did not disclose what was said in the confessional.

The lawsuit also names as defendants the girl’s alleged perpetrator, George J. Charlet Jr., who died in February 2009 at the age of 65, and Charlet Funeral Home Inc. Charlet was president of the company.

Charlet was a well-known, longtime parishioner and active member of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton, where Bayhi was pastor, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

The suit alleges Charlet began emailing the girl in the summer of 2008, and that the emails quickly increased in frequency and became “laced with seductive nuances.” The suit contends Charlet ultimately kissed and fondled the child.

A phone message left Monday at the home of Charlet’s widow, Miriam Joy “Sue” Stelly Charlet, was not returned.

In George Charlet’s obituary, which was published in The Advocate, he shared a message that read in part, “I am alright with my God. He knows my heart. I bet my life on Him. I ain’t worried.”

The suit alleges the girl went to confession three times, telling Bayhi that Charlet had inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her that “he wanted to make love to her.”

The priest allegedly told her she needed to handle the situation herself because “too many people would be hurt” otherwise, the suit says. He also allegedly told her, “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” the suit alleges.

Charlet’s alleged abusive acts continued after the confessions, the suit adds.

The Supreme Court opinion says various parishioners observed the seemingly inappropriate closeness between Charlet and the girl.

The child’s parents filed a formal complaint against Charlet with the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office, but he died while the investigation was ongoing, the high court’s decision notes.

Shortly before the trial of the suit was set to begin, the church filed a motion seeking to prevent the plaintiffs from “mentioning, referencing, and/or introducing evidence at trial of any confessions that may or may not have taken place.”

Caldwell denied the motion. The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal not only reversed the judge but also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against the priest and church in their entirety.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and, in a concurring opinion, Justice Jeff Hughes emphasized that the issue of whether the communications were confessions must be addressed before the legalities can be resolved.

“I believe the integrity of the sacrament must be protected to the utmost, not only for the sake of the participants, but to protect the ability of individuals to freely confess their sins,” he wrote. “I see nothing that prevents the child from testifying about her own communications to the priest.”