We blogged about how Anglicans in Australia are doing away with the absolute “seal of confession”–that is, the pastor’s pledge of total confidentiality when they hear penitents confess their sins. Now an American court is trying to do the same thing, forcing a Roman Catholic priest to testify about what he heard in the confessional from an accused child abuser. [UDATE: In the very interesting discussion that is waging, Jeremiah pointed out that I got this wrong, that it wasn’t the confession of the abuser but that of the abused child that is at issue.]From Aaron Taylor, Uncle Sam Eavesdropping Outside the Confessional | Aaron Taylor | First Things:
The Louisiana Supreme Court is seeking to compel Fr. Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, to testify about what he heard in the confessional concerning a case of child abuse. If subpoenaed to testify and asked about what he heard during confession, the court will effectively be asking Fr. Bayhi to choose between being sent to prison and committing what Catholics consider to be such a serious offense against the sacrament that not even the Pope himself can dispense from the law’s requirements in this area. As an indication of the seriousness of the matter, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that violators of the seal of confession should be “deposed from the priestly office” and then “consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.”
If the evidence offered so far in the case is accurate, then there are serious questions surrounding Fr. Bayhi’s fitness for priestly ministry. A deposition heard by the court alleges that when a 14-year-old girl asked the priest for advice on how to fend off inappropriate advances from a 64-year-old parishioner, he simply told her, “this is your problem; sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.” If this allegation is true (and here we must remember that Fr. Bayhi has absolutely no way of defending himself against it even if he wants to), then what happened was an appalling dereliction of duty on the priest’s part for which he would have to answer to God.But the fact that there may be bad confessors who fail to care properly for their penitents does not mean that the government has the power to regulate the worship of the Catholic Church. We are not even talking, in this case, about the role of the Church in the “public square,” but about the Church’s internal sacramental life. The secrecy of the confessional seal is an integral part of the Catholic faith concerning this sacrament, and, regardless of the small number of Catholics who actually confess these days, the celebration of this sacrament goes right to the heart of the Christian religion. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “the Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners,” and for many Catholics over the centuries the sacrament of confession has been the means through which God’s mercy is most viscerally conveyed to them at the moments during their lives when they are the most vulnerable.
Mr. Taylor goes on to cite other confidential relationships that the law recognizes: attorney/client, physician/patient. One could add that spouses may not be forced to testify against each other. Nor may an individual be compelled to testify against himself. But the traditional guarantee of confidentiality between pastor and church member–which is not just a Roman Catholic requirement but is also a professional requirement for Protestants–seems to be in jeopardy.
Is this another case of religious liberty being threatened?