Sunday, October 27, 2013

When Confessions are Confidential

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of the Catholic Church where one anonymously confesses his or her sins to a priest. The confidentiality of these confessions are paramount, and failure of the priest to uphold the confidentiality would result in excommunication of the priest. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, some United States laws have provisions that prevent the government from requiring information from confessions. In thinking about issues of religious establishment, I assure you that concerns of a slippery slope are not necessary, because as you will soon see, we have already slid to the very bottom of the slope.

In 2000, a family with a minor daughter moved from Baton Rouge to Clinton, in Feliciana Parish, where they began attending “Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church”.  The family soon became well acquainted with a Parishioner named George Charlet Jr., who the daughter viewed as second grandfather from 8 years old through her adolescence. Eventually, Charlet allegedly kissed and fondled their daughter.

Confused, the daughter then decided to seek spiritual guidance through the Sacrament of Reconciliation on three separate occasions. After she relayed to the priest the abuse she suffered at the hands of Charlet, the priest merely responded that the daughter needed to handle the situation herself, or else “too many people would be hurt”. The daughter eventually confessed to her parents, after which they ordered Charlet to cease contact with their daughter. The following Sunday, however, the parents witnessed Charlet “approach their daughter after church and hug her openly against her will”. They then filed a formal complaint against Charlet at the sheriff’s office. On February 9th 2009, during the investigation, Charlet died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack while in recovery following a knee replacement surgery.

On July 6, 2009, the parents filed a petition for damages suffered by them and their daughter, naming the deceased George J. Charlet, Jr., Charlet Funeral Home, Inc., where Charlet was the president; the priest, whom they alleged was a mandatory reporter who failed to report the abuse; and the church, alleging liability for the priest’s misconduct. In February 2013, the priest and the church filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence regarding the confessions, including testimony by the child herself.

The defendants argues that the damages that child suggested were due to Charlet, not the priest, and that the priest attained knowledge of the abuse through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, meaning that the communication was confidential. La. Children Code art. 603(15)(c) provides that a priest is not required to report knowledge gained from “confidential communications.” The article states “communication is confidential when relayed to a clergyman when it is made in private and not intended for further disclosure”. The defendants also argue that had the priest violated the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he would be subject to excommunication. They therefore argued that if the law were to require them to provide information from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it would impair their freedom to exercise their religion.

The trial court denied the defense’s motion, claiming that the priest could have acquired certain knowledge regarding the abuse outside of the confessional, and that such knowledge should be permissible. In addition, the court claimed that according to the Code of Evidence Art. 511, the privilege to confidentiality belongs to the communicant, the daughter, who in this case waived the privilege. Therefore, the court found that the testimony of the daughter was relevant, and she was entitled to waive the privilege. The Court of Appeals unfortunately reversed the trial court’s decision, claiming that the priest was not a mandatory reporter as the information was acquired during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In addition, the Court of Appeals granted “No Cause of Action” and dismissed the plaintiff’s suit.

The Court of Appeals’ questionable handling of this case is only a small part of the problem. The larger problem is the severe establishment of religion found within the Children’s Code. The provisions fail two of the criteria of the Lemon test, which is useful in this particular instance for demonstrating establishment. First, there is no secular purpose of allowing priests to withhold information important for bringing child abusers to justice. In addition, it creates excessive entanglement, as it presents an image of the government protecting criminals associated with religious institutions. While the provision’s primary effect isn’t one that advances or hinders religion, it certainly favors religion over non-religion, as it provides religious ministers with the power to withhold information that individuals holding secular jobs, such as physicians or psychologists, do not have. The establishment clause says that neither state nor federal governments can “ pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” Therefore, the provisions in the Children’s Code are clear violations of the establishment clause.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that the provisions for religious ministers in the Children’s Code are not an establishment of religion. In Sherbet v. Verner (1963), Justice Brennan said that infringing on freedom of religion is justifiable if there is a compelling state interest to do so, and there have been cases where the Supreme Court has decided that infringements upon free exercise were justified by a compelling state interest. For example, in Goldman v Weinberger (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that the compelling state interest of creating a strong military was enough to warrant violating Goldman’s free exercise of religion by not allowing him to wear his yarmulke while on duty at an Air Force base. Therefore even if the provisions were not establishments and even if removing the provisions would hamper the free exercise of religion, there is a compelling state interest to stop child abuse. This compelling state interest is enough to warrant the restriction of religious freedom that removing these provisions would cause.

This situation clearly demonstrates how establishments of religion can become problematic. By providing the Catholic Church with a provision that allows their priests to withhold confidential information from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in order to protect their freedom of religion, we have slipped so far down the slippery slope the point where the government protected the Catholic Church from taking accountability for its actions, and prevented an abused child from finding justice.  In situations like this there is a compelling state interest to restrict religious freedom, as the safety of a child should take precedence over the Catholic Church.


Nicole D said...

I'm not sure I can agree with you. While I agree the child should get justice and some sort of closure, and that the act by a member of the church she felt she could trust is despicable, I do not see the court's opinions as an establishment of religion. I think that rather this is upholding the free exercise of Catholic priests. A priest takes an oath to never reveal anything they hear at a confession. According to them, turning someone into the police would not help anyone. They would be betraying confidences, and furthermore, in their eyes God would punish any criminal more than any court could. I'm not saying that I agree with this, but it is as if they are abiding by a particular ethical code that they cannot break. To force them to betray this oath would be undermining their entire religion, take away their credibility among other Catholics, and most importantly in their eyes, take away their credibility among their God. While there may sometimes be a compelling state interest to punish a priest who does not comply with the courts in the best interest of the victim, I do not see one in this particular case. At this point, there is no longer a threat (since the perpetrator died) and it would not be consistent with the first amendment to blame the priest for following his religious duty.

Adam J said...

I have to agree with Nicole on this. I agree that the girl should have justice but I do not think that forcing a priest to break the vows he took to protect confessions is the way to do it. I believe that the law allowing a priest to not come forth protects his freedom of religion by protecting his beliefs on the sacraments in the Catholic Church.

Jennie M. said...

I agree with Nicole and Adam that requiring the priest to break confession would undermine one of the most important principles of the Catholic faith and the entire religion itself. But I wonder how the child, or other children for that matter, could get true justice if the priest was not required to divulge some information.

Benjamin S said...

I do not think that the priest should have to give up the vows he made to the Catholic Church. Those are protected under the free exercise clause. I do not agree however with the defense’s argument that the girl’s vows should not be allowed to be read. She does have a right to justice, but breaking the rights of the priest is not the proper way to accomplish that. Punish the man who actually committed the crimes.

Tyler J said...

While I agree with the other comments in stating that it is wrong to force a Priest to break his vows of confidentiality, I feel as though there should be some kind of exception with regards to cases of murder and child abuse. Both of these crimes harm others to an extreme degree a well as affect their families. I don't think it is fair to call this case an establishment of religion by the state, however.

Rebecca Mayeux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LA Law said...

I am the attorney for the minor child and her family. Thank you for the article covering the case. I am pleased to report that the Louisiana Supreme Court recently overturned the court of appeal's decision and the Diocese and the priest are once again defendants in this matter. Hopefully, the case will go to a jury trial sometime in 2015.

Michelle said...

@LA Law
Thank you for sticking with the family all these years. Good luck on the upcoming hearings.