Evidently, the Louisiana State Supreme Court woke up one morning and decided to K-O the legal protection for the seal of the confessional.
This legal privilege, which has long protected priests from prosecution for not revealing the things said to them in confession, has been under attack from zealous prosecutors. A few years ago, a prosecutor, who evidently never heard of building a case through the vast investigative powers of the government, decided to bug and record a confession between a prisoner in jail and his priest. When the prosecutor tried to enter this confession into evidence, the Catholic Church took him to court and won.
Now, the family of a young woman in the state of Louisiana has decided that they want a priest to testify as to what the young woman said to him in confession. The family has filed suit to force the priest to testify, so they can pursue a civil suit against the diocese. Since this confession was about the ugly topic of child abuse by an adult man, it raises all sorts of emotions and angers.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court basically ruled that if the person confessing reveals the confession, then the seal is broken and the priest can be forced to testify about the contents of the confession. There is precedent for this viewpoint in the attorney-client privilege. I have seen judges rule that the attorney-client privilege was broken because someone other than the attorney and client were in the room during the discussion, and then force the client to testify in court as to the contents of their conversation with their attorney.
However, the seal of the confessional is different from attorney-client privilege or doctor-patient privilege, or counselor-client privilege because it is a First Amendment right. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion without government interference. This guarantee has kept America out of the religious conflicts which have marred other societies for over 200 years.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court, by attempting to treat the seal of the confessional as any other privileged conversation, put its foot right through the First Amendment. Subsequent to this, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge petitioned the United States Supreme Court to overturn this Louisiana decision.
Now comes the murky part.
The United States Supreme Court sent this whole mess back to the level of the Fifth District Court in order for that court to hear arguments.
Ever since the Supreme Court did this, I’ve been reading that they allowed the Louisiana Court’s decision to “stand.” I’ve read whole news reports saying this as a fact. I honestly thought that was what had happened.
But this is not accurate. The Supreme Court did not say, go home, Louisiana’s Supreme Court was right. They basically said, get back in line.
They sent the case, which is still alive and kicking, back to a lower court to allow both sides to have their say and present their positions. That action does not let the Louisiana State Supreme Court’s decision “stand.” It just lets everybody, on both sides, have their day in court.
I expect this decision of the Louisiana State Supreme Court to be overturned.
However, if it is not, then we are going to have to come back against this violation of our religious liberties, and we’re going to have to come back hard. This is not a parlor game. It is a matter of sending our priests to jail because they will not violate the seal of the confessional. It is a question of whether or not Catholics will be free to access the sacraments of our faith without government intrusion.
Priests will have no choice in this matter. They will have to go to jail rather than break the seal of the confessional. If they don’t, the entire edifice on which the Church is built — the sacraments — will crumble. American Catholics have an absolute right to receive the sacraments without government intrusion. That right is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
It is one of the essential building blocks of all our liberties as a free people.
Most of these attacks on the seal of the confessional come from over-zealous prosecutors. This particular claim comes from a family that probably feels guilty because their child was sexually abused and they did not know about it. I understand that and sympathize with it.
What I don’t understand and sympathize with is their attempt to make money off the deal with this civil suit. I also don’t understand why they are so eager to cash in that they are willing to attack one of the bedrock freedoms Americans enjoy and the sanctity of penitents’ encounters with Christ in the confessional.
They appear to be wiling to damage their country and their Church with this lawsuit. That will not heal their grief at having failed to protect their child.
The Fifth Circuit has the case now. We’ll have to wait and see what they do.