Let’s talk about a Louisiana court case you probably haven’t heard about. What I find fascinating about the case is how completely divorced the actual case is from the rhetoric about it on Catholic blogs and news sites.
Here is how the Catholic News Register describes the case:
The Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling that a diocesan priest may be forced to break the seal of confession.
This is how the case is being reported, but what is it actually about? Well, in the case in question a 14-year-old girl told a priest during confession that a much older parishioner was sexually abusing her. The priest treated the situation like a consensual affair and told the girl to end the relationship and keep it quiet, but offered no other aid and did not report to social services.
Curious about the case, I looked up the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling and read it. You can read it here. Here is the summary at the beginning:
This writ presents the issue of whether a party is precluded from offering any evidence of her confession and whether a priest has a duty to report allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated on a minor parishioner.
The thing is, there is nothing here about forcing a priest to testify. There’s the question about the duty to report, yes, but there’s also something else, which I have placed in bold. Are you wondering what that part means? I was too.
Shortly before trial was scheduled to commence in the present matter, the Church filed its motion in limine, seeking to prevent the plaintiffs from “mentioning, referencing, and/or introducing evidence at trial of any confessions that may or may not have taken place” between plaintiffs’ minor child and the priest, while the priest was acting in his official capacity as a Diocesan priest and hearing confession from his parishioner. The trial court denied the motion, finding the testimony of the minor child regarding the confession was relevant and, certainly, as the holder of the privilege, she was entitled to waive it and testify. However, the trial court “did recognize the conundrum with which [the priest] is presented, and I know his solution to that is going to be that he is not going to say anything about any confession.”
Yes, you read that right—the Catholic Church entered a motion to prevent the young woman from saying anything about the confession she gave when she was fourteen, in which she spoke of her sexual abuse at the hands of a much older parishioner. This was not about whether the priest could be forced to testify. It was about whether the Catholic Church can prevent the young woman from voluntarily testifying about her own confession. Out of the many blog posts I looked over on this subject, there was exactly one that understood that this was actually the issue in question, and in that post the blogger in question argued that the woman should indeed be legally prevented from saying anything about her confession or what happened during it.
When the case entered the justice system, the trial court ruled in the young woman’s favor, but the appeals court then ruled that the Catholic Church could indeed gag the girl. Finally, the Louisiana Supreme Court then reversed that ruling. Here was their reasoning:
Under [the statute’s] provisions, the privilege clearly belongs to the penitent-communicant, not to the priest: “A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another person from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman….” La. Code E vi d. art. 511(B); see also La. Code Evid. art. 511, Comments—1992 (i)(“Under this Article the privilege clearly belongs to the communicant”.). It follows, if the penitent waives the privilege, the priest cannot then raise it to protect himself as he can only “claim the privilege on behalf of the person,” not in his own right. La. Code E vid. art. 511(C). Therefore, we find the appellate court erred in granting the Church’s motion in limine, excluding all evidence of the confession in its entirety as the child/penitent is free to testify and introduce evidence as to her own confession.
Once again, the issue is whether or not the young woman is allowed to discuss what she said during confession at age fourteen, not whether the priest can be forced to testify about what he said. The Catholic Church is claiming that this law regarding confidentiality allows a priest to prevent people from testifying about what they told to him in confession. They are essentially contending that their religion should allow them to gag anyone from saying anything about anything that is said in confession ever by anyone at any time.
But what I’m absolutely flummoxed by is how badly this is being reported by blogger and Catholic news site alike.
One blogger put it like this:
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.
The question is whether an abuse victim can testify about what was said during confession, not whether a priest can be forced to testify about what was said during confession.
Lest you think I’m being hyperbolic, here is an official statement by the diocese:
Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.
Do you see that? The diocese holds that it is against church law for the young woman in question to tell anyone that she told a priest in confession about her abuse—and that civil law should back up church law.
[T]he Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a priest of the Baton Rouge Diocese, Father Jeff Bayhi, could be forced to testify in court about a supposed confession made by a minor allegedly regarding her sexual abuse at the hands of a parishioner.
No, no it did not. I just went back through the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision searching for every use of the word “testify.” Every single time it the word is use it refers to whether the young woman—the penitent—should be allowed to testify regarding what she said. The only time whether the priest could be required to testify is even mentioned, this is what is said:
However, the trial court “did recognize the conundrum with which [the priest] is presented, and I know his solution to that is going to be that he is not going to say anything about any confession.”
In other words, everyone understands that if the priest believes he must not say anything about what he or the young woman said in confessional, he is waiving his right to present his side of the story. But then, there are plenty of times when a defendant refuses to cooperate with an investigation in any way, and the court still has to make a determination on what they think happened. This is how courts work.
There is one more issue worth discussing. It’s this:
From a purely utilitarian standpoint, however, the failure of the state to respect the integrity of the confessional seal is a foolish blunder. Very few criminals are likely to be either stupid enough or pious enough to confess their sins to a priest if they think there is any risk that the priest will report them. Riding roughshod over the seal of confession is likely to have little effect apart from making society slightly less safe for everyone, since those criminals who evade police detection will also avoid having a priest exhort them to make amends for their crimes. Compelling Catholic priests to violate the confessional is not only bad for the Catholic Church, but bad for America.
Personally, I think the Louisiana Supreme Court struck a fairly good balance in their discussion of the state’s mandatory reporting laws. Members of the clergy are mandatory reporters. The statute exempts any “confidential communication” in keeping with the provisions of the religion, but waives that exemption when there is reason to believe that a child’s welfare is in danger. I think it makes sense to offer some form of confidentiality (like exists between a therapist and a patient, for example), but that confidentiality should not extend to cases where someone (especially a child) is in actual danger.
It’s worth noting that there is nothing in this decision to say that a priest must report any crime confessed to him unless a child’s welfare is in danger. So in arguing that priests should not have to report any crime confessed to them, the blogger quoted above wants priests to keep silent in cases where a child’s welfare is in danger and he has information that could protect that child—because these are the only cases in question. In fact, with its ruling the court solidifies confidentiality in all other cases—it simply states that (a) people are allowed to talk about what they said and what was said to them in confession and (b) priests must report reasonable suspicion that a child’s welfare is in danger.
Whether or not the Catholic Church agrees with it, the law is clear. The priest did have a legal obligation to report what the young woman told him in her confession at age fourteen, because he is required by law to report any suspicions that a child is in danger even if those suspicions are based on something told him during confession. This much is open and shut. If the Church doesn’t like that the law says this, they need to change the law. Because they can’t snap their fingers and do that, they’re taking another route: They’re trying to use a statute designed to protect the confidentiality of the one making the confession to prevent the young woman from giving her own testimony.
This is all very, very convenient. It gives priests free reign to say anything they want in confession with utterly no legal ramifications at all—because, if the Catholic Church has its way, no one is allowed to say anything about anything that happens in confession, and that includes the person making the confession. The Church claims it is simply trying to maintain the integrity of its religious traditions, but in practice it’s trying to limit individual parishioners’ freedom of speech. Catholic bloggers and news sites need to be honest about that.