Lawsuit against Catholic Diocese questions confidentiality of confessional

Lawsuit against Catholic Diocese questions confidentiality of confessional
Published: Jul. 9, 2014 at 12:59 AM CDT
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CLINTON, LA (WAFB) - The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend its beliefs.

It involves a lawsuit, allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor, and whether a priest can be forced to testify about what was said in the confessional.

The parents of a child who claims she was molested several years ago by an older parishioner of Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton, La. is suing the alleged now deceased perpetrator, George Charlet, Jr., along with a priest and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge.

Attorney Brian Abels, who is representing the parents, said the girl, then 14 years old, was sexually abused.

“This is kissing and touching and fondling. The very last time our client thought she was going to be raped,” Abels said.

The suit alleges the girl went to confession three times, each time telling the priest, Father Jeff Bayhi, that Charlet had touched her inappropriately and told her "he wanted to make love to her."

The priest, according to the suit, allegedly told her, "This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it."

Attorney Abels said the priest told no one about the allegations, and is therefore liable for the sexual abuse his client claims continued.

“Her testimony has been it was more of a plea for help, counseling, and that plea according to her went unheeded,” Abels said.

But because the counseling took place in a confessional, the Catholic Church contends Father Jeff Bayhi did the right thing.

In a statement, the Diocese of Baton Rouge said, "A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. Persuant to his oath to the church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal."

A district judge ruled, however, that the girl can testify in court about what she said in confession.

An appeals court disagreed, stating the alleged victim could not testify about the confession and the priest was not required by law to report the allegations of abuse. But the Louisiana Supreme Court issued an opinion saying the girl can indeed testify. However, the high court took it a step further noting "the trial judge must decide whether a priest has a duty to report allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated on a minor parishioner."

Attorney Yigal Bander, who is not involved in the case, said that is where things could get even more complicated.

“Does it violate the first amendment to make a priest a mandatory reporter, based on a confession under any circumstances? That may be a legitimate concern the church has,” Bander said.

The diocese responded that the Louisiana Supreme Court has overstepped its boundaries and has violated the first amendment. It stated, “For a civil court to impinge upon the freedom of religion is a clear violation and the matter will be taken to the highest court in the land."

“I think they are saying that they can't decide based on an interpretation of what is confession because courts have no business deciding and that's true,” Bander said.

Abels said it was never his intention to get the priest to testify. Instead, he wants a jury to hear the case and decide whether Fr. Bayhi and the Roman Catholic Church are responsible for his client suffering years of alleged sexual abuse.

“It's our position that regardless of where that happened she should be able to testify as to what she told the priest and anyone else about this unfortunate incident,” Abels said.

Abels expects the case will go to trial next year.

While a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge said the Church would fight this case to the highest level, she would not discuss specifics of the plaintiff's allegations, saying they never comment on pending litigation.

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