Diocese of Baton Rouge and priest dismissed from lawsuit over confession

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The Diocese of Baton Rouge has won a near decade-long court battle over confession.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Father Jeff Bayhi have been dismissed from an 8.5-year long lawsuit to protect a priest from having to disclose possible allegations of sexual abuse against a teenage girl that he heard during confession.

Father Bayhi said fundamental core beliefs were challenged and he's grateful religious liberties have been protected. "I think there are a lot of people that believe that the purpose of the church is to change so that we keep up with modern culture. The purpose of the church is to remain faithful to God and try to bring modern culture to God," he said.

"The decision preserves the Seal and sanctity of the Confessional which the Church considers inviolable," according to a statement released by the church Thursday.

"Destroying the Seal of Confession would have destroyed all other sacred communications," Father Bayhi said. "Can you imagine, going to see your pastor and your pastor says you need to know, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law? You have to be Mirandized."

There is a Louisiana law that states clergy, who are considered mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse, must report privileged information to the proper authorities if a child's physical or mental well-being is in danger. The lawsuit questioned the confidentiality of the confessional.

In 2009, Father Bayhi and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge were sued by the parents of a then 14-year-old girl, alleging she was molested by an older parishioner, who is now deceased.

Attorneys said three times in confession that the girl told her priest, Father Bayhi, that the man touched her and made inappropriate comments. The priest, according to the suit, allegedly told her, "This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it." But, because the counseling took place in a confessional, the diocese contended that Father Bayhi did the right thing.

"We have always accepted that the Seal of Confession comes through the apostolic tradition of Saint Peter. In the name of that promise to Peter, we feel we act in the person of Christ in forgiving people's sins. There will be a lot of people who theologically will disagree with that, I understand that, but that's our belief," Father Bayhi explained. "Therefore, it's so sacred that in the event that any priest would ever violate something they heard in confession, and make it public knowledge, automatically with no questions they would be ex-communicated and no longer be a priest and no longer be a member of the Catholic Church for doing that. It's instant, it's automatic," he said.

The case went before the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the Louisiana Supreme Court twice, and even to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in January of 2015, the high court decided not to get involved in the case and noted that "the trial judge must decide whether a priest has a duty to report allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated on a minor parishioner."

According to the statement by the church, Judge Mike Caldwell of the 19th Judicial District Court ruled on September 27, 2017 "a civil court has no 'subject matter jurisdiction' to hear or render a judgment concerning Church teachings and doctrine."

"I hope that Judge Caldwell's decision becomes somewhat of a landmark piece of jurisprudence that courts will realize that in a land founded on freedom of religion, to have a civil court start to interpret church doctrine or teaching is a violation of our rights," Father Bayhi said. "I hope it stands very clearly to protect all people of faith that there is a difference between civil law and church law."

The judgment was signed on February 9, 2018.

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