Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession? July 16, 2014

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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