Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Dead men file no lawsuits. They also don’t defend themselves to TV reporters. And live priests don’t divulge what they hear in the confessional.

That frees news media like WBRZ-TV to pile on the bias without being sued or contradicted.

Rebecca Mayeux, 20, told the Baton Rouge station that she was molested when she was 14 by George Charlet Jr., a fellow parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. She says she went three times about it to the pastor, Father Jeff Bayhi, only to be rebuffed. “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” she says he told her.

When she finally told her parents, they hired a lawyer, but the case has been complicated by the sudden death of the alleged molester of a heart attack. That puts pressure on Bayhi to talk about what he heard during confession.

WBRZ’s so-called Investigative Unit totally takes Mayeux’s side. It paints her as “an intelligent college student in the prime of her life” and that “reading is one of her favorite hobbies” — as if she’d be less credible if she were old, dumb and illiterate.

Chris Nakamoto, the main inquisitor, er, reporter, switches between saying what happened “according to Mayeux” and assuming that it all happened as she says. He shows a picture of Mayeux and Charlet “during the time frame Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture.” Interestingly, the text version of the story softens that accusation to “when she claims Charlet was abusing her” (emphasis mine).

WBRZ tries a “gotcha” moment with a TV videoclip of a YouTube homily by Bayhi, in which he urges parents to take action when they learn their children are being hurt. The clip “appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,” Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.


Nakamoto also gives screen time to Mayeux’s lawyer, who says that Father Bayhi is legally bound to report the alleged abuse because the girl was talking about someone else’s misdeeds, not any sins of her own. I.e., the lawyer is trying to define what is and is not confession.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has fought the family’s efforts to make Bayhi testify to what the girl told him, arguing for the sanctity of the confessional. But the diocese “is doing itself no favors” in refusing to talk to Nakamoto, says Rod Dreher, a longtime friend of GetReligion.

Instead, the diocesan chancery sent WBRZ a two-page letter. The statement says that all priests, including Bayhi, are forbidden to break the “absolute and inviolable” seal of confession — even if it means prison:

This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved for forgiveness to the Apostolic See in Vatican City, Italy.

In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.

But even if the diocese seemed to be stonewalling, the Investigative Unit could have investigated a little further. I’ll bet they could have learned about canon law from places like Loyola University of New Orleans, a Jesuit school. Or Notre Dame Seminary of New Orleans. If not, they could have found someone via the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Does this all sound cold and hostile to an abuse victim? I hope not. I hope it sounds more like rules of proof and ethics of reporting. Certainly, some Catholic clergy have often committed abuses, and others have covered it up. After waves of scandals over the last three decades, the Church should have had its act together on such matters.

None of that is a good reason to assume that once accused — even by a bright young college student — a priest is necessarily guilty.

Dreher’s long, anguished column shares the public disdain for the “horrible behavior of the Catholic Church and its lawyers in the past.” He also asks why the priest didn’t urge Mayeux to repeat her story to him outside the rite of confession, then go to the police.

On the other hand, Dreher worries that “moral panic over clerical abuse” will do more than permit biased reporting — it may erode a basic religious freedom:

As I’ve written in this space, it is vitally important for the cause of religious freedom that the Catholic diocese prevail, but from what I can tell, it’s going to be a tough road ahead for the diocese. The Church will have to argue that preserving the seal of the confessional is more important than the state’s interest in compelling a priest to be a mandatory reporter of child sex abuse allegations. In this culture, given how horribly the Catholic Church has performed on this front, that will be a very tough sell.

“Hard cases make bad law,” as legal experts have said for more than a century. Dead men and silent priests can also make for bad journalism, if reporters take the easy way out.

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About Jim Davis
  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “The clip ‘appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,’ Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.” It also ignores another possibility. She claims she went to confession with Father Bayhi three times. Contra Dreher, we don’t know what the priest told her — we only know what she’s reporting he told her. He could quite possibly have told her, “Look, don’t tell me about in Confession because I can’t do anything about it if you tell me here. Tell your parents. Tell the police. Tell me outside of Confession.” And it could be that she’s misremembering him saying to “sweep it under the rug” because she may believe that’s the essence of what she thinks he told her. And it could be that she’s out-and-out lying just to uphold her lawsuit against a dead man and a necessarily silent priest. None of these possibilities seem to have occurred to the reporter.

    • Jim Davis

      All valid possibilities. Thanks for mentioning them.

    • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

      Also, some background should be provided concerning the many other situations where a person need not testify or talk about– the husband-wife privilege, the lawyer-client privilege, the doctor-patient privilege, the clerical privilege as granted to other churches and religions. And I am sure there are others. It is not just some sort of Catholic thing and it is far more widespread in other areas. How often on TV crime shows have we seen police stymied by the lawyer privilege???, but such is never challenged or even debated. It is just taken for granted these privileges and any limitations they cause have to be worked around rather than attacked..

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  • gigi4747

    I guess I don’t find it that surprising, nor necessarily a bad thing, that the secular media would sympathize with the victim. I would contrast that with what I’ve seen in Catholic media, which is defense of the seal (which I think Catholic media should refrain from calling “religious freedom,” btw, because this involves a PRIVILEGE, not a right, like the Hobby Lobby and Little Sister cases) and what seems to me like an almost total lack of regard for the alleged victim and her family. To date I have not heard of any Catholic media interviewing the girl. Would that be a good idea if she’d agree? I agree with Rod Dreher that this is a tough sell, as it should be. The Church needs to explain why Christ would want His priests abetting sexual abuse, which is the effect here if the girl’s allegations are true. So far, I’ve only heard it repeated that this is the tradition if the Church. Ok, why? What biblical basis is there for no exceptions being made to the seal? The Church needs to explain this one not only to the secular folks, but to some of us lifelong faithful Catholics as well.

    • Jim Davis

      “If the girl’s allegations are true” is indeed the big question.

      • gigi4747

        Of course, although there’s another story of a possible sexual abuse cover up that has been in the news right now, also, that of a Colorado mother suing Planned Parenthood. The suit I believe alleges that pp did an abortion on a 13 yr old girl and then discharged her with her stepfather, the alleged abuser. Prolife groups are rightfully up in arms that pp (once again) has allegedly covered up statutory rape. I get that the Catholic Church and planned parenthood are pretty much diametrically opposed in beliefs and practice, but I guess I see little difference between these two suits, other than that the alleged abuser in the pp case got further with his victim. It will be interesting to see how the secular and Catholic media treat these two similar stories (and indeed if the sec media covers the pp story at all). It will also be interesting to see the difference in the reaction of faithful Catholics, ie, in the first case, everyone immediately reminds people these are just allegations, in the second, treating pp’s guilt as a foregone conclusion.

        • Jim Davis

          That’ll be interesting indeed, Gigi. But I’m not sure the Catholic faithful are really that apt to presume a priest is innocent. Members of his own parish, usually yes. Other Catholics, maybe not.

  • Daniel Merriman

    I find this rather odd if I am understanding the story correctly. As an attorney, my client can waive the privilege and force me to testify. The privilege belongs to the client, not the lawyer. Is this story saying that the Church is claiming that the privilege belongs to it? The priest/penitent privilege does not, in so far as I am aware, depend on cannon law. If the woman had spoken in confidence to her Baptist minister, that conversation would be confidential, but she could waive the privilege and I have no doubt he would be required to testify. Sounds like the good Father needs to pack his toothbrush.

    Edited to add: I really can’t see any fault on the reporter’s part in not beating the bushes for canon lawyers to interview since the diocese seems to have stated the black letter canon law correctly. The outcome of this case won’t be decided by canon law, but by the statues relating to evidentiary privileges under Louisiana law as enacted by its legislature and interpreted by its civil courts. That the priest is placed in a difficult position is an occupational hazard. Your complaints about the reporter seem particularly out of bounds given that you no where report that until the Louisiana Supreme Court stepped in the Diocese had successfully kept the VICTIMS testimony about the confession out of the case. The opinion is linked in the Dreher piece that seems to have set you off.

    • gigi4747

      I’m curious – do attorney-client or other such privileges always hold? Eg, if an atty found out in the course of a privileged communication that his client was harming a minor, would he be obligated to act on that information?

      • Daniel Merriman

        If there is ongoing harm, the lawyer might even be required to disclose, but he probably ought to hire his own lawyer first.

    • Guest

      My first answer is that Catholics are not Baptists. The latter would, of course, try to keep confidences. But there is no law threatening Baptist ministers with excommunication if they don’t.

      I don’t see where the report says the diocese prevented Mayeux from testifying. The letter from the diocesan chancery said that Mayeux herself had submitted the case under seal. I saw nothing there on whether the diocese thought she had a right to release the priest or to reveal what he said.

      Rod Dreher got conflicting opinions from two canon law experts on whether she would be allowed to divulge what was said during confession. But neither of them said she couldn’t simply repeat the charges to someone else — as, in fact, she eventually did, to her parents and to the lawyer they hired.

      Thus far, the only opinions on confession dug up by WBRZ were those of that lawyer and the diocese. How about someone with no dog in that fight? That’s why I suggested two schools right in Louisiana. They would have been easy for the station to find, and they’d be considered something like local experts.

      But what really set me off, as you put it, was the extreme one-sided reporting by Nakamoto and his team — taking everything from Mayeux and her lawyer as gospel. If you saw such a biased report against a client you were defending, I suspect it would set you off, too.

      • Daniel Merriman

        The Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion has a good recitation of facts. It seems clear that the Diocese was the one arguing to keep BOTH the priests and the penitents testimony about the confession out. Again, it is linked in the Dreher article and is very readable.

        The law presumes that litigants are entitled to every witnesses testimony. Exceptions are called privileges and always and everywhere they are narrowly construed. Multi-volume treatises have been written on the attorney client privilege and its exceptions. Privileges are disfavored. Canon law doesn’t bootstrap Catholic canon law to any higher status than a claim of privilege by some backwoods bi-vocational Baptist preacher– if the penitent waives the privilege, it is waived, period.

        I find it passing strange that you seem to have bought into Dreher’s First Amendment angst, too. The citizens of the great state of Louisiana have no less religious liberty after the decision of the Loiusiana Supreme Court than they did before it. This is not new law. This case looks like it has to get settled since the victim’s testimony is going to come in and the Diocese won’t be able to refute it, which creates what those of us with legal training call a slam dunk, so why all the Religious Liberty noise? Might not a better story be who is elevating this routine point of law into such a huge important deal?

        Our local paper is blessed by having a law school grad who does most of the local court reporting, otherwise I have no expectations that journalists are competent to report legal matters. I’ve represented one client who was the subject of very unfavorable reporting in 3 Wall Street Journal articles. Life’s not fair, all I cared about was that the case against my client was ultimately dismissed.

        • Jim Davis

          With all due respect, Daniel, you need to read what an article says and what it does not say. I reported Rod’s concern about religious freedom but didn’t say whether I “bought into it.” I do see a problem, though, with the government trying to define what is and what is not religious. The government has traditionally stayed out of that.

          But my main concern — as I said in my previous note, and in the vast majority of my column — is the slanted reporting of WBRZ, trying to make us take Mayeux’s side. That’s rank manipulation and a breach of journalistic ethics.

          Congratulations on winning your client’s case, but you never said how you would have felt if local media favored your opponent. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because I’ve written my last response on this column.

          • Daniel Merriman

            Fine. I’ll grant that the underlying story by the TV station was a hit piece, but Dreher’s response, which you linked to and quoted without any critique, is equally overwrought.

            I would only hope that you might think about why it is that all of a sudden reasonably routine, if sometimes close, legal issues have been elevated to fundamental threats to religious liberty in the conservative and religious media. (The religious left is guilty, too, though they appeal to different fears). I honestly do not think either Catholics or Evangelicals are well served by this tendency to escalate.

            As far as my feelings are concerned, my clients (I’m retired now) never paid me for empathy. You asked.

    • Jim Davis

      Daniel, my first answer is that Catholics are not Baptists. The latter would, of course, try to keep confidences. But there is no law threatening Baptist ministers with excommunication if they don’t.

      The diocese’s attempt to quash Mayeux’s testimony is indeed questionable — and puzzling, since her allegations are now
      in the public record. Rod Dreher got conflicting opinions from two canon law experts on whether she would be allowed to divulge what was said during confession. But neither of them said she couldn’t simply repeat the charges to someone else — as, in fact, she did, to her parents and to the lawyer they hired.

      Thus far, the only opinions on confession WBRZ dug up was were those of Mayeux’s lawyer and the diocese. How about someone with no dog in that fight? That’s why I suggested two schools right in Louisiana. They would have been easy for the station to find, and they’d be considered something like local experts.

      But those are all issues about the case itself. I don’t pretend to know enough to judge it. What set me off, as you put it, was WBRZ’s reporting — extreme one-sided reporting, taking everything from Mayeux and her lawyer as gospel, and all but saying the priest was guilty as charged. That amounts to telling us, the readers and viewers, what to think. If you saw such a biased report against a client of yours, I suspect it would set you off, too.

      P.S. Ignore the comment from “Guest,” below. I’ve deleted the part about the diocese trying to keep her from testifying. From the appellate court decision, I see that yes, the diocese did attempt that.

      • Daniel Merriman

        One point of clarification that I learned subsequent to my reply to your earlier duplicate post. According to a piece I found at Religion Dispatches, the plaintiff ‘s attorney is not seeking the priest’s testimony. There is no threat of the priest going to jail. Whether he testifies or not is up to the Diocese. He would be a defense witness. If there is a split among canon lawyers on this question, then maybe the Diocese needs to find another cannon lawyer.

        • Gail Finke

          It seems to me that the diocese was attempting to keep confession out of the case entirely and have it be based on other evidence. However, part of the suit was that the priest was a “mandatory reporter” and ought to have reported the abuse when he heard it, so that would have gotten rid of the suit — and the suit agains the diocese for not training the priest that he had to do so (which they would not have done, because it is the opposite of what any Catholic diocese in the world would train priests to do).

      • Brian Westley

        What set me off, as you put it, was WBRZ’s reporting — extreme one-sided reporting, taking everything from Mayeux and her lawyer as gospel, and all but saying the priest was guilty as charged.

        I’d say a lot of that is due to the RCC losing so much credibility over the years when it comes to concealing child abuse. People are going to assume church officials are trying to cover up abuse and protect the church.

        • Jim Davis

          There’s definitely a problem with Church ethics. WBRZ’s reporting is a problem with journalistic ethics.

  • Gail Finke

    The family claims that Fr. Bahyi met with them about the issue — although AFAIK what happened during that meeting has not been made public. I see no reason to believe that, if they had a meeting about the girl being abused, he did not tell them to report the abuse. They have not (again, AFAIK) said so — only that the alleged vicitim says the priest didn’t tell her to turn the man in during her confession. Someone reported the abuse, who was it?

  • MainlineP

    Mr. Davis, while you are correct about the shoddy reporting and tactics of the “reporter”, your piece has some inaccuracies or omissions. Point one: the deceased alleged molester was not a clergyman but a layman. Point two; No court has ordered the priest in question to break any confessional seal. The penitent , the plaintiff, under civil law has the legal privilege, not the priest. She is free to claim she said anything and seeking dollars she has done just that. Point three: Though it gets hard-core RC all inflamed this case isn’t about a court forcing any priest to talk about the contents of a confession. Point four: the priest can remain silent, and lose the case, but what is more important to RC, dollars or the sacrament? Sure it’s unfair, but that is not the test under the church’s canon law. Point five: the real issue RC should get inflamed about is the appellate court’s implied direction to the lower trial court to examine whether an alleged discussion was truly a sacramental confession. Now that implicates the constitution. But this case, to repeat, does not involve any priest being forced to break “a seal”. Plaintiff’s law firm doesn’t get to force anyone to give specific answers in a deposition. That is the court’s province, and thus far, no such order has issued. Moreover, even if issued the priest could still refuse and pay any contempt fine.

    • Jim Davis

      Nowhere did my story say that George Charlet Jr. was a priest. In the third paragraph, I said he was a parishioner.

      The courts haven’t told the priest to testify (thus far), but the diocese accused the plaintiff of trying to compel him to do so. That was in the chancery letter I linked in my story.

      I won’t answer the rest of your questions, because they appear to assume I’m Catholic — your mentioning “you guys” and “your church’s canon law” — and that I’m trying to defend the church. I’m not Catholic, I don’t know canon law, and GetReligion is not about “good” or “bad” religion. It’s about good or bad religion reporting. As you’ve acknowledged, the WBRZ report is an example of the latter.

      • MainlineP

        Thank you, and I have edited my remarks to remove any reference to your faith or linking you with Rome. My apology for having previously done so.

  • OverheadPolynomial

    Hey everybody, let’s find an exception that tests the rule and enshrine it as dogma. Go.


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