The systematic abuse of the free exercise clause strikes again. In this latest episode, according to bloggers at Hot Air and the American Conservative, “[t]he Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that a priest must testify in a case about what he heard in a confessional,” and “Fr. Bayhi will have to go to jail to protect the seal of the confessional.”
These pundits can, to some extent, be forgiven for these misleading statements since the Catholic Church’s Baton Rouge Diocese has made some fairly alarming claims including, among other things, that the Supreme Court’s decision “attacks the seal of Confession” and that to compel a priest to testify would be a violation of both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause, subjecting the priest to excommunication.
If, in fact, a court did compel a priest to break the seal of Confession that would be a radical act. Good thing the court didn’t actually do any such thing. It only takes a brief review of the facts to reveal a far more, dare I say, judicious ruling.
According to Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate (not to be confused with the LGBT publication of the same name), “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.” (Even this brief summary is somewhat misleading, since the status of the girl’s conversation with the priest as “confession” is a central question.)
A lawsuit filed against the priest and the church several years ago was dismissed by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the priest was not required to report the abuse since his conversations with the girl all occurred during the sacrament of Confession. The state Supreme Court reversed that decision in May ruling that what did and did not take place during confession was a matter of fact that ought to be argued at trial.
So, despite the misrepresentations of the Church, newspapers and right wing bloggers, the court did not rule that the priest had to testify as to what he was told during confession.
It’s also worth noting that, with regard to the girl’s own testimony, the seal of Confession wouldn’t be broken as it doesn’t apply to the penitent, only to the priest. Yet, not only is the Diocese seeking to keep the priest from testifying at all, it filed a motion to bar anyone from mentioning what took place during confession.
So no, no one is actually attempting to compel the priest’s testimony—the attorney for the plaintiff confirmed that fact—and nobody is challenging the seal of Confession. The only question here is: can a religious body—one that, in this case, is a defendant in a lawsuit—make its own determination concerning the facts?
Of course there is a thorny issue here given the difficulty of determining both the contours of a religious ritual and the facts regarding a series of encounters that took place several years ago, but the diocese and its apologists have opted to go the chicken little route, joining those who see attacks on religious liberty at every turn.