Unsealing the Seal of Confession

A particularly serious threat to the religious liberty of the Catholic Church in the United States has been posed by a recent decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court in a case involving the seal of confession. The court ruled that Fr. Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the Baton Rouge Diocese, could be compelled to testify in a civil lawsuit regarding matters Fr. Bayhi may have learned hearing the confession of a minor child. The parents of the child sued the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi, in addition to the alleged perpetrator of acts of sexual abuse, George J. Charlet, now deceased. The suit alleges that the child spoke to Fr. Bayhi in confession on three occasions and told him that Charlet was sexually abusing her.

The Diocese fought this effort to compel Fr. Bayhi to testify. In an official statement, it said:

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. 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.
That duty is absolute: he must remain silent about what he learns in confession. Canon 983 § 1 states: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

Canon 1388 § 1 states the penalty for a violation of the seal: “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.” Direct violation “occurs when the confessor deliberately discloses the identify of the penitent and the contents of a confession, either explicitly or implicitly; indirect violation occurs when the confessor negligently says or does or fails to do something which leads others to conclude or suspect the identity of the penitent and the content of the confession.” (Commentary on canon 1388 in The Canon Law, Letter & Spirit, London: 1995)

Few more serious obligations are imposed by the Church on priests and admits of no exceptions. Clergy should not even acknowledge having heard someone’s confession lest they commit an indirect violation of the seal. I recall a venerable old monsignor telling the story of answering the telephone at the rectory one Saturday. A caller inquired when the priest would be able to hear her daughter’s confession. He told her the times. Later that same day, the mother called again and asked, “Did my daughter tell you…”

The priest did the only thing he could – he hung up the phone without saying a word – an example of rudeness without sin.

Fr. Jeff Bayhi

      Priestly life involves many small sacrifices for the love of God and his Kingdom. But special heroism is demanded in crucial moments that place one both in the public eye, and front and center in the never-ending battle to safeguard the  freedom and autonomy of the Church. Such a moment has arrived for Fr. Bayhi.

The diocese elaborated: “This matter cuts to the core of the Catholic faith, and for a civil court to inquire as to whether or not a factual situation establishes the Sacrament of Confession is a clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States. This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”

Judges have no business hauling a priest into court to explain anything about a confession he may have heard. In this case, the plaintiff has already admitted that the communication with the priest was during a sacramental confession. What more need be established?

The Court’s decision is one more step in the ongoing effort to bring religion under the heel of the state. The Obama Administration’s attempts to coerce the Catholic Church into disregarding her teaching on abortion and contraception is the prime example of the elite’s attitude towards claims of religious freedom under the Constitution. It reminds me of the saying, “When we want your opinion, we will give it to you.” Think and do as we say, or we will make you pay dearly.

Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, recognized as such in our Constitution and laws. When the Supreme Court of Louisiana says that the state has a right to force a Catholic priest to reveal in any way what went on when someone entered into a confessional to receive the sacrament of penance, we have arrived at a new judicial imperialism.

Why is this happening? Americans, by and large, approve of religion and respect its claims, even when they do not accept the teachings of this or that religion. They see the wisdom of the Constitutional protection of religious liberty as an inviolable part of a free and just society. Alas, many influential people in the government, the academy, the media and other centers of power and influence do not share that appreciation. Disdain for religious freedom manifests itself in persistent attempts to restrain religious people from placing their faith above the civil authority or “enlightened” sentiment.

Fr. Bayhi is a silent witness to the primacy of faith over any earthly power, and his refusal to testify is a necessary rebuke to an overreaching court that undermines its own legitimacy by violating the Constitutional right of Fr. Bayhi to freely carry out his duties to God, and to the faithful who come to him for Divine pardon, secure in the knowledge that what they say will not – ever – be revealed.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.

  • Chris in Maryland

    The seal should be defended by The Church publicly and persistently. We shall see how The Church comports itself.

    It seems the aim and design of this case is to break the seal of confession.

  • Manfred

    @Father Murray: Thank you for another great piece on a very important subject. When I read your pieces on the subject of the seal of confession and your warnings on the upcoming synod, I feel I am back in the time of Pius XII’s papacy.
    Unfortunately, the problem is that few people, including many Catholics, take the Church seriously any longer. If the Obama Administration is so inimical to the Church, why do I have a picture of Barack Hussein Obama sitting next to the laughing Cdl/ Abp of New York at the 2012 Al Smith Dinner? Why does this same Cdl/Abp admit that no catechesis or moral theology has been taught for forty-five years? If Canon Law forbids lay people from giving homilies at Mass, why was that practice allowed to go on continuously in the Diocese of Rochester, NY for FORTY YEARS with the full knowledge and cooperation of two Ordinaries? If sodomy is an abomination, why does no bishop issue a warning to his flock to not march or attend Gay Pride parades? Then, of course, there is Pope (?) Bergoglio…..

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Here in Scotland, the “confidentiality of communications” between ministers and members of their flocks is a principle so elementary that I can trace no reported case on it. It is recognised by all the Institutional Writers (Dickson ii. § 1881.—Hume ii. 336. 335.—ii. 350.—Alison ii. 471, 586)

    Alison is particularly trenchant: “‘But our law utterly disowns any attempt to make a clergyman of any religious persuasion whatever divulge any confessions made to him in the course of religious visits, or for the sake of spiritual consolation, as subversive of the great object of punishment, the reformation and improvement of the offender.” (Practice of the Criminal Law of Scotland (1833)) Dickson on Evidence, rather quaintly, bases it on the principle that no witness is obliged to answer a question “in suam turpitudinem,” a question he would disgrace himself by answering.

  • Richard A

    Thank you, Manfred, for always being there to point out the cloud in the silver lining.

    St. John Nepomucene, pray for Fr. Bayhi.

  • Douglas

    This case may not be so simple as suggested, and the reactions in various circles without further discussion may be overblown. Clearly, the penitent has purported to waive the protection of the seal of the confessional in bringing the lawsuit. Is the seal of the confessional for the protection of the penitent? If so, why can’t the penitent waive the protection of the seal, releasing the confessor from the obligation of confidentiality? An excerpt from a Times-Picayune article on the case states:
    “The Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling that the priest’s confidentiality can only be claimed ‘on behalf of’ the confessee, so the priest can’t claim confidentiality to protect himself since the girl waived her privilege. It maintains that the confession, then, wasn’t ‘privileged communication,’ so he should possibly be subjected to mandatory reporting laws.”
    Put another way, this appears to be a case where the seal is being invoked for the protection of the confessor AGAINST the penitent. Perhaps for a priest to disclose what was said under the seal even in this situation is contrary to canon law, and should not be required by civil law, but the answer is not obvious.

  • Sue

    The even-longer standing tradition of confidentiality between patient and physician is now broken, thanks to Obamacare/HIPAA/NSA/Big Brother, such that a patient cannot rely on a doctor keeping his medical disclosures secret. The NWO probably thinks the Church’s confession-seal is also ripe for the picking.

  • Dave

    @ Douglas: a penitent is always free to divulge to another whatever the penitent brought to confession. There are no canonical penalties for doing so. A priest, on the other hand, may never reveal anything that is said under the stole, for the simple reason that if one priest ever breaches the sanctity of the silence of the seal, the seal is broken. Fr. Murray is right that this is about the freedom and autonomy of the Church, and that war is being waged by the State in its quest to be the supreme source of law, authority, and justice for its subjects (we’ve ceased being citizens in any real sense, I think). It is also about the freedom of the penitent to bring to God through the priest whatever most troubles the soul, and about finding the special counsel it needs to find peace. So a command that a priest break the seal hurts not only the Church per se; it wounds all of her children, who lose a precious gift. Another way of putting it is that if the State diminishes the freedom of the Church, the State diminishes everyone’s freedom — whether the State recognizes the effect of its action, or not; and that Father Murray is right to note that there is a conscious, concerted effort on the part of many political elites to take down the Church so that they may proceed with their own agenda. Church history offers many examples of this battle being fought.

    I remember a journalist friend once telling me, back in the day, that other journalists were surprised that after they took down MCI and Enron, they were unable to take down the Church. What those journalists, and our contemporary elites, fail to recognize is that since the Church is of divine origin, sustenance, and destiny, they may never destroy the Church, try though they may.

    Fr. Bayhi, we are praying for you.

  • Dennis Larkin

    Two things.

    1. A priest should never hear confession face to face, given this willingness to destroy the seal of confession. If the priest does not know the penitent, he truthfully cannot know of whom the court is speaking.
    2. Lawyers! And judges! They assert that an oath before a court is more important than a sacred oath before a bishop. Attorney-client privilege, so they hold, is absolute, while the seal of confession is an outdated superstition foisted on the innocent by a corrupt Church. Lawyers! And judges!

  • Myshkin

    Attacking seal of Confession is just one of the ways this so-called “nation under God” is comporting itself. Truthfully the only way in which the. U.S. is under God at this point in its history is to be under God’s judgment. It will be swept away in a few years like all the human nations before it.

    But the Roman Catholic Church will continue as God’s institution for salvation even if it must undergo a terrific purgation … It will ultimately emerge even more holy than it ever was …

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Let’s face facts: this case has little to do with matters of confidentiality. This case has little to do with discerning truth. This case is all about yet another opportunity to sue the Catholic Church and line some greedy lawyers and their plaintiffs’ pockets with cash. Because if it is determined by the priest’s own forced disclosure that said abuse actually was told to him, he should (according to perverse law) have been required to report it to the authorities. It is not the perpetrator they are after; he’s dead. It’s the bank account of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s what motivated all that litigation against the Church because of the homosexual assault by priests on minors. It was less about the victims and more about how rich we can get at the Church’s expense. We ascribe too lofty motives to many who are shady characters (and here I am NOT referring to the victims of abuse). It follows the meme: “We will destroy you by bankrupting you.”

  • Stan J

    Sadly, most of the politicians, including Obama, who tend to violate the religious freedom and the sanctity of the Church were elected by Catholics.
    What goes around, comes around, including the consequences of Vatican II.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I find Douglas’s suggestion that a penitent can waive the obligation of secrecy an invidious one.
    Who is to judge whether such a waiver is given freely and voluntarily?

  • Drusilla Barron

    From the Supreme Ct. of LA’s ruling:

    “According to the allegations in the petition and the deposition testimony in the record, subsequent “meetings” were had—one between the priest and Mr. and Mrs. Charlet …concerning the “obsessive number of emails and phone calls” between Mr. Charlet and the minor child and the seemingly inappropriate closeness between the two that had been observed by various parishioners.”

    “Therefore, we find the appellate court erred in granting the Church’s motion in limine, excluding all evidence of the confession in its entirety as the child/penitent is free to testify and introduce evidence as to her own confession.”

    “Therefore, we find the appellate court erred in dismissing
    plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice as the question of duty/risk should be resolved by the factfinder at trial, particularly herein where there exists material issues of fact 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.”

    Though Fr. Bayhi cannot testify about any confessions he heard, the plaintiff is free to testify about the confessions she made.

    But more than those confessions are in question. The knowledge Fr. Bayhi gained that led to the meeting with the Charlets may have made him a mandatory reporter. Additionally, the factfinder at trial must determine if his meeting with the Charlets was confidential. All we can do is wait pray that the truth will be made known.

  • Richard A

    @Douglas: yes, the case is as simple as stated. The penitent may say she waives the seal of confession in her case, but that is of no import whatsoever. There is no provision in canon law or the history of the Church for granting such a waiver, and the priest is absolutely, in all circumstances, bound not to violate the seal of confession. Having the penitent’s permission to speak has the same effect as not having it: none whatsoever.

  • Manfred

    Am I the only one who remembers Fr. Gilbert Gauthe of the Diocese of Lafayette, LA? It was the enormity of the case against him in 1985 and the way the Church responded which blew the lid off the priest sex abuse issue. This issue of confession is in no way analogous to what happened re Gauthe, but Louisiana and the Church have had a very unpleasant history rather recently and I suggest that may have played a role in this case.

  • Fred

    Dennis Larkin, you are spot on!
    The solution is to bring back the old confessional, where the priest and penitent cannot see each other.
    The current practice in many US parishes contributes to the danger.

  • ANNE

    CCC: “1467 Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares 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.
    This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.”

    It would protect our Priests from secular mandates if we all went back to using the grate / screen during Confession, so the Priest could not positively identify anyone. As stated by the first poster –
    “A priest should never hear confession face to face, … If the priest does not know the penitent, he truthfully cannot know of whom the court is speaking.”

    What the penitent does is immaterial.

  • Jack,CT

    I Agree with all our friends above and I
    only add this;a CIVIL CASE!

    the goal is to gain a cash settlement and
    a devoted Priest is asked to sin in one
    of the worst ways for what MONEY! I feel
    for the victim if in fact she was one,but
    I suppose my advice would be the “Prioritys”
    of the confessor are backwards,They should
    go running back to Fr Bayhi and confess that
    there attempts for monetary gain even if it
    RUINS A GOOD PRIESTS LIFE is the real Crime-
    (IF the case is strong than you do not need
    Fr Bayhi and to turn your back on the Church)

  • Brian English

    “Attorney-client privilege, so they hold, is absolute,”

    Actually, it is not. There are various exceptions.

    “Though Fr. Bayhi cannot testify about any confessions he heard, the plaintiff is free to testify about the confessions she made.”

    True, and it is also my understanding that there is an issue regarding what Fr. Bayhi said to the girl.

    The Church is certainly under attack in this country, but we shouldn’t undermine our own position by responding to phantom fears.

  • Brian English

    I would advise everyone commenting on this issue to go read the Louisiana Supreme Court’s opinion.

    Fr. Bayhi should certainly be required to testify under oath as to whether he actually made the statements alleged by this young girl.

  • schm0e

    It must be some kind of privilege to get up every day and read headlines that confirm Holy Scripture and seem as though they would fit perfectly in a novel about the Apocalypse. Or a “dystopia”, if you will. Or even the Apocalypse itself.

    This story made me think of catacombs.

  • Fr. Gerald E. Murray

    @ Douglas:The seal of confession is not contingent upon the consent of the penitent. In the section of the Code of Canon Law dealing with evidence is ecclesiastical trials (Book VII, Article 1 – Those who can be witnesses), Canon 1550 § 2, 2° states: “The following are deemed incapable of being witnesses: priests, in respect of everything which has become known to them in sacramental confession, even if the penitent has asked that these things be made known. What a priest may never reveal in a church court may not, by analogy of law, be revealed in a civil court, or in any legal proceeding of any type, or indeed in any circumstance at all. The seal protects the integrity of the sacrament of penance, in addition to the individual penitent’s expectation of confidentiality.

  • schm0e

    I wish to thank Dennis Larkin for his comments, particularly point #1.

    In a proper confessional, the Church provides a setting in which both the penitent’s and the priest’s dignity can be protected.

    And I often do think about a priest’s dignity; he is only a man like myself, and I owe him at least that.

    Your comment has opened my eyes to an aspect of the act of making confession that I had sensed but dimly and was not aware enough of to articulate.

    The “open” confessional setting had always made me uncomfortable, it always seemed too casual. I had, I supposed, dismissed my misgivings as expressions of vanity, not to be heeded. I now have an understanding of why it must be avoided.

  • DE-173

    God bless the good Priest.