The seal of the confessional creates a bond of confidentiality stronger than that enjoyed by attorneys and their clients or doctors and their patients. It is an absolute, said Father Lou Vallone, pastor of two parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and an adjunct professor of canon law at Duquesne University.
It’s serious enough that, years ago, when Father Vallone was called to testify about a penitent who came to him, he packed a bag with a change of clothes and some books to read, fully expecting to be jailed for contempt of court for refusing to divulge information about the man’s demeanor before he entered the confessional.
Father Vallone never actually was called to testify; the man switched his plea to guilty before his trial reached that point. But given his experience, Father Vallone has been closely watching the case of Father Jeff Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
Father Bayhi and his diocese were sued in July 2009 by the parents of a girl who was in Father Bayhi’s parish and who says she disclosed an inappropriate sexual relationship with another parishioner in at least three confessions in 2008, when the girl was 14. Her parents claimed the priest failed in his duty as a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse. The man involved was 64 and a prominent parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton, Louisiana.
According to the lawsuit, the girl — Rebecca Mayeux, now 20 years old — said that Father Bayhi told her to deal with the situation herself and “sweep it under the floor.” When Mayeux’s parents became aware of the relationship, they reported it to the police, and the man involved was being investigated by the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Department when he died from complications following surgery, according to a ruling issued by the Louisiana Supreme Court in May. That ruling says that the trial court should hold a hearing to find out whether Father Bayhi learned of the abuse only in the context of confession, and whether any information he obtained outside the confessional triggered his duty to report the abuse to authorities. There is also a question of whether the priest could be obligated to testify if Mayeux waives the confidentiality of her confession.
Father Bayhi has refused to discuss what may have been said in any confession, a stance for which he has the strong support of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. “This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith. The statutes involved in this matter address ‘sacred communications,’ which are confidential and are exempt from mandatory reporting,” said the diocese in a statement July 7.
A priest simply cannot refer to what occurred in the confessional ever again, even if it is to prevent a crime or help a victim. What he could do in a case like the one described in the court filings, Father Vallone said, is to encourage the penitent to report the crime outside of the confessional. “The first thing I would say to a girl in that situation is that it is not her sin,” Father Vallone said. “She is a victim. And I would use every persuasive means I could think of to get her to tell her parents, tell the police, tell me after I get out of the confessional.”
References to meetings between Father Bayhi and the man involved, and between Father Bayhi and Mayeux’s parents about the excessive emails exchanged between Mayeux and the man muddy the waters in the Louisiana case. If there was information from those meetings that led Father Bayhi to suspect sexual abuse, then that information would not be covered by the seal of the confessional.
Canon vs. civil law
Father Vallone and Father John Beal, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, agree that the seal of the confessional must be upheld, even over civil law, because the stakes are so high. “This is literally for the salvation of your soul,” Father Vallone said.
“The only ordinary way for a member of the faithful to be reconciled to God and the Church following a serious sin is through the sacrament of penance, and confession requires people to expose their consciences,” Father Beal said.
Priests who violate the seal of the confessional excommunicate themselves, and the decision to reinstate them can only come from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Holy See. For the most part, civil courts respect the seal. “By and large, every jurisdiction in the United States does have a statute recognizing the confessor-penitent privilege,” Father Beal said. “However, in many jurisdictions in this country, the privilege is understood to benefit the penitent only. Therefore, the civil law would obligate the confessor to honor the sacramental seal as long as the penitent has not released it.”
That means the penitent could, under the civil law in those jurisdictions, decide to waive confidentiality, and a court could attempt to compel the confessor to testify. It’s not easy to say whether canon law allows the penitent to open the seal, as it were, despite the statement from the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“There is no definitive Church statement about the possibility of a penitent releasing the confessor from the obligation to confidentiality,” Father Beal said, adding that a number of canonists, from St. Thomas Aquinas to the authors of a 20th century exegetical commentary on the sacrament from the Opus Dei university in Pamplona, Spain, have at least allowed for the possibility.
However, there are moral issues involved with sharing information from a confession as well as legal issues, including finding a way to be certain the penitent has in no way been coerced into waiving the right to confidentiality, the danger of confusing other members of the faithful about whether information they share in confession could be revealed and causing scandal.
Because of this, there are experts who would agree with the diocese’s contention that the penitent cannot open the confessional to view.
“There is a minority opinion that the penitent cannot do so, and that is probably the safer view,” Father Beal said.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.