Sacramental confession: Under debate in La. court case

A Louisiana court has ruled that a trial court may admit testimony about an individual’s sacramental confessions.

Civil courts do not have the jurisdiction to determine what constitutes the sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic Church, say national and local Catholic leaders in response to a recent Louisiana Supreme Court ruling over a sex-abuse victim’s confessions.

Reversing the decision of an appellate court — which last year threw out a lawsuit filed in 2009 against Father Jeff Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge claiming the priest failed in his duty as a mandatory reporter when a 14-year-old girl allegedly told him during confession that she was being sexually molested by a now-deceased parishioner — the high court ruled that a trial court may admit the girl’s testimony about her sacramental confessions.

The ruling has alarmed Baton Rouge diocesan officials with its mandate that the trial court discover whether the girl made a sacramental confession or that the priest’s knowledge of the abuse came about in another way. In a two-page statement, the Baton Rouge Diocese said that the high court’s order “assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications.”

As stated in the record cited by the appellate court, the girl told the priest of her abuse within the sacrament of reconciliation on three separate occasions in 2008. In the same record, the plaintiffs implied that these communications were not “truly” a confession because the girl was giving information about her sexual abuse, not relating a sin. The diocese said the high court did not have the jurisdiction “to adjudicate claims that turn upon such purely religious questions.”

“The Supreme Court of Louisiana cannot order the district court to do that which no civil court possibly can — determine what constitutes the sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic Church,” said the diocese.

Benedictine Father Luke Dysinger, who teaches sacramental theology at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, explained that there are no circumstances in law or in any other context where the seal of the confessional can be broken. He noted that this confessional seal is “absolutely inviolable” for the protection of the penitent, and canon law dictates that a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal is subject to excommunication.

“The people of God must always be able to trust that what they say in confession can never be revealed,” said Father Dysinger. “In the modern world certain confidential communications, for example between patients and physicians or therapists, are ‘conditionally confidential’: that is, the contents may be disclosed to others if certain conditions are met, such as the possibility of danger to the client or to others. 

“However,” he noted, “the Catholic Church regards the penitent-priest communication, the so-called ‘seal of confession,’ as absolute. No authority, ecclesiastical or civil, can oblige or permit a priest-confessor to disclose what was said during a confession.”

Naturally, he said, the question sometimes arises whether the “seal of confession” was truly present. Is it a question of a ceremony, or of a specific liturgical formula? How, for example, does sacramental confession differ from counseling or spiritual direction? 

“From the priest’s perspective,” explained Father Dysinger, “if the penitent asks for absolution, or if the interaction ends with the priest conferring absolution, then the seal is certainly present. From the perspective of the penitent, even if for some reason absolution is not conferred, if the penitent approached the priest with the assumption that he or she was going to confession, then the seal is present and the priest is forbidden to reveal what was said.”

The National Catholic Register contributed to this story.


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