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LA court intervention threatens religious freedom

It should worry those who prize religious freedom when a court defines the practice of a particular religion, as appears imminent in Louisiana.

That situation has come about from a ruling by state 19th District Judge Mike Caldwell in refusing to dismiss the Diocese of Baton Rouge from a suit brought by a woman claiming past sexual abuse by a parish member, now dead. She alleged that she told Fr. Jeff Bayhi about it in a confessional setting and further asserted he recommended that she do nothing.

The Louisiana Supreme Court last year ruled that Bayhi had no obligation to report to authorities any presumed credible evidence of commission of a crime against a child (she then was a minor) incident to communications under confessional seal. Church canon law mandates excommunication for any confessor who reveals any information obtained this way, or even to confirm that any encounter took place.

Unable to foist liability onto Bayhi and Diocese over violation of mandatory reporter laws through the sacrament of confession, the plaintiff appears to have changed tactics. While the Court ruled in favor of religious freedom regarding mandatory reporting, it also kept the scope firmly on the confessional seal, reasoning that communications not of that nature somebody would have to report. Thus, to keep the Diocese liable and part of the suit, the plaintiff wants to have a court, utilizing a jury, to determine whether the communication in question was a “confession” or something lesser.

If a court does not define the exchange as a “confession,” then this opens up liability on Bayhi and the Diocese as a reporter if the woman’s version actually occurred, regardless of whether the Church considers it as such. Under the Diocese’s interpretation of canon law, Bayhi can’t contest her story, making her case that much stronger.

The Diocese could allow Bayhi to release his obligation to the confessional seal. Canon law makes no direct statement about when a penitent authorizes a confessor to reveal that a confession occurred and its contents, but the balance of jurisprudence would argue that this does not violate Canon 983 and a confessor may speak of a confession and its substance uder these circumstances. Yet, assuming Bayhi offers a different account of what they said that does not have him asking her to sweep it under the rug, if not ruled as a confession the liability still would exist as a reporter.

But continuing the case in this fashion treads very dangerous water. What gives 12 individuals the right to define the religious practice and its valid application? To allow that gives the state enormous power over the exercise of religion, triggering a question which almost certainly should reach the U.S. Supreme Court again if defendants challenge the result (the Court previously ruled on whether part of the case was a federal question by declining to take it up, meaning it felt the matter should proceed under state law.)

The Catholic catechism clearly demarcates the sacrament of reconciliation, outlining responsibilities of both the confessor and penitent. That the plaintiff may not have believed herself engaging in it may have mooted the absolution for her, but from the priest’s perspective, as long as he followed the minimal requirements asked of from a confessor, he engaged in that. The penitent does not get to assign whether an encounter in a confessional was confession; as long as it followed the proper form and the priest believed he was performing the sacrament, it must be considered “confession.”

A court simply cannot interpose its own judgment in this case. If Catholicism’s rules term an event that meets certain qualification a confession, it is. Any other interpretation imposed by government very hazardously erodes religious freedom.

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