Baton Rouge, La. — The diocese of Baton Rouge has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that a priest may be compelled to testify as to what he heard in the confessional in 2008 concerning an abuse case.
The legal step is the latest in a case involving Fr. Jeffrey Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, La., and the sanctity of the seal of confession.
The petition to the U.S. Supreme Court comes after a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling in May outlining arguments that priests are subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding abuse of minors if the person who made the confession waives confidentiality. The state Supreme Court opened the door for a hearing in which the priest would testify about what he heard in the confessional.
Under canon law, the seal of confession is sacred under the penalty of excommunication.
In the case, a girl who was 14 in 2008 said she told her parish priest, Bayhi, in the confessional that she was abused by a now-dead lay member of the parish.
The girl's parents sued Bayhi and the Baton Rouge diocese for failing to report the abuse. The parents won at the district court level about compelling the priest to testify, but they lost in Louisiana's First Circuit Court of Appeals, before the state's highest court reversed and vacated the appellate court's decision.
NOLA.com reported that the young woman was identified as Rebecca Mayeux, now 20, in an interview with WBRZ, a Baton Rouge television station. She told the station that Bayhi told her to "take care of it" after she told him of the abuse when participating in the sacrament of reconciliation.
In documents filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 21, the diocese said the state Supreme Court ruling threatens "church autonomy."
The diocese cited case law from a court decision involving the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese that found that "religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry."
The hearing proposed by Louisiana Supreme Court would violate the church's constitutional protection afforded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution to abide by its own laws, the diocese claimed.
In a statement released Thursday, the diocese said the state Supreme Court's decision "strikes a very hard blow against religious freedom, and one which the diocese and Bayhi feel compelled to vigorously contest."
"The ruling, left undisturbed, would result in a trial during which the plaintiffs would be permitted to offer evidence regarding what transpired during a series of alleged confessions with Father Bayhi and the diocese utterly unable to defend themselves, unless Father Bayhi were to violate his vows to his church by divulging whether or not Ms. [Rebecca] Mayeux obtained confession, and, if such confessions did take place, what was said.
"The Louisiana Supreme Court has directed the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing and then to take the unprecedented step of deciding whether or not a sacrament actually took place. Such a trial is completely at odds with the guarantees of religious freedom enshrined in our federal and state constitutions, and the diocese and Father Bayhi will take every legal step available to ensure that those proceedings never occur," the statement said.