Christian groups stand with diocese to protect Seal of Confession
By MATT HADRO
Baton Rouge, La., Sep 30, 2014 / 04:44 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - Nearly 20 organizations, both Catholic and other denominations of Christian, have joined the Diocese of Baton Rouge in asking the Supreme Court to protect a priest from being forced to violate the Seal of Confession.
The group heading the support for the diocese, Catholic Action for Faith and Family, stated it “fully supports the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s position that ‘civil courts are entirely without jurisdiction to decide what constitutes a sacrament in the Catholic Church’.”
“For this reason Catholic Action has filed an Amicus Brief, supported by 17 other Catholic and Christian organizations. The brief decries the fact that the Louisiana Supreme Court has directed the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing to decide whether or not a sacrament actually took place.”
The case in question is a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that a jury, not the Catholic Church, may determine if a priest’s conversation with a minor about sexual abuse was made in the Sacrament of Confession and thus is protected under confidentiality in state law.
The specific conversation between diocesan priest Fr. Jeff Bayhi and a minor who said she was abused by a parishioner allegedly took place during the Sacrament of Confession in May.
According to the court’s ruling, Fr. Bayhi could be forced to testify in court about the contents of confession, or whether it took place. However, under Church teaching, the “Seal of Confession” compels a priest not to reveal, under any circumstances, the contents of a confession. A violation of the seal incurs automatic excommunication.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives.”
A state appeals court initially ruled that the alleged confession was “confidential” and thus Fr. Bayhi did not have to testify in court as to its alleged contents or whether it even took place.
However, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying that the Seal of Confession did not shield Fr. Bayhi from mandatory reporting laws because the girl herself had waived her confidentiality privilege, so the priest could no longer invoke the privilege either.
The diocese is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Eighteen organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the diocese, including the groups Catholic Answers, the Catholic League, Priests for Life, and John Paul the Great Catholic University.
However, the brief was also signed by a number of non-Catholic groups, including interdenominational Christian groups like Gospel of Life Ministries, the National Pro-Life Religious Council, the National Clergy Council, and the National Pro-Life Center.
“[We] have an interest in preserving the right of religions to define in their own view which communications are confessional and absolutely protected from disclosure, and to protect the right of ministers to refuse to break the seal of the confessional if their religious beliefs require the maintenance of that seal,” the 18 organizations wrote in an amicus brief supporting the diocese.
The groups emphasized that the case carries grave First Amendment implications.
Previous Supreme Court precedent makes clear, they stated, that the rights of priests and penitents “are protected not only by statutes, but also by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The current state Supreme Court decision violates both the Religious Question Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception, principles that are already established, the groups claimed.
The Religious Question Doctrine deals with the government’s power to determine a religious claim from a secular point of view.
In this case, “the secular answer to the religious question of how to define a ‘Confession’ would override the religious answer,” the brief stated.
“The priest-penitent privilege stands solely on religious justifications. It is a practice unique to religion, and especially unique to the Catholic faith. Adopting any definition of a ‘Confession,’ beyond how a particular religion defines ‘Confession,’ will potentially override the religious definition of a ‘Confession’ and is constitutionally impermissible.”
The court ruling also violated the Ministerial Exception protections of the First Amendment, the groups claimed. In a 2012 ruling n Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government could not interfere in the employment of ministers by churches.
The brief cited that ruling, emphasizing that priests are automatically excommunicated – the highest canonical penalty – if they break the Seal of Confession, even if a court tries to force them to do so.
“This means that a priest who has incurred an automatic excommunication for breaking the seal is no longer allowed to act as a priest. He is disqualified from ministry as long as the excommunication is in effect. Thus, the action of the state of Louisiana would coerce priests into doing acts that will disqualify them from ministry in the Catholic Church and thus directly impact who the Church is able to appoint and retain as its ministers, in violation of Hosanna-Tabor,” the brief said.