A Catholic priest at the center of a contentious court case pitting the secrecy of the confessional against state laws designed to protect children is suing a Baton Rouge television station over the station’s reporting of the case.
The Rev. Jeff Bayhi claims he has been defamed and is seeking damages from WBRZ-TV in 19th Judicial District Court.
In the underlying court case on which WBRZ has reported, Rebecca Mayeux claims when she was 14 she told Bayhi — her pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton — that she was sexually abused by a now-deceased church parishioner. She alleges Bayhi neglected his duty under Louisiana law to report the alleged abuse to authorities.
“During this reporting, WBRZ-TV and its employees presented Mayeux’s claims against Father Bayhi in such a manner as to create the impression that those claims were facts instead of mere allegations,” lawyer Henry Olinde Jr. writes in Bayhi’s suit against the station.
WBRZ news director Lee Polowczuk said Dec. 22 that the station’s attorneys were reviewing the suit and he could not comment on the specific allegations in it. “We’re confident the outcome will be in WBRZ’s favor,” he added.
Olinde declined to elaborate on the suit.
Bayhi, in response to the Mayeux lawsuit and in his suit against WBRZ, maintains that as a Roman Catholic priest he is bound by the sacred seal of confession and can neither disclose what happens in any confession nor confirm or deny that a confession ever took place.
“Should Father Bayhi violate that sacred seal in any way, his faculties as a Roman Catholic priest would be immediately and automatically suspended by the Vatican itself,” Olinde points out in the priest’s suit against the station.
Mayeux’s parents sued Bayhi in 2009, as well as the Baton Rouge diocese of the Roman Catholic Church and the late George Charlet Jr., the man who allegedly abused her.
During a Jan. 20 news report, Bayhi’s suit claims, WBRZ and its employees prominently displayed a graphic on the screen that stated “woman claims priest abused her at age 14” and “priest died while authorities were investigating.”
“WBRZ-TV and its reporters knew that there was never any allegation that Father Bayhi abused, or had sexual contact with, Mayeux,” Olinde states in Bayhi’s suit.
In addition to defaming him, WBRZ invaded Bayhi’s privacy by casting him in a false light to the public, the suit alleges.
Bayhi’s suit, filed Nov. 20, has been assigned to state District Judge Wilson Fields.
State District Judge Mike Caldwell is presiding over the Mayeux suit.
The Baton Rouge diocese tried to block Mayeux’s testimony about the alleged confession at the district court level, but Caldwell ruled the priest-penitent privilege was hers to break.
A Baton Rouge state appellate court reversed the judge, saying a priest is a mandatory reporter of abuse only when the information is received outside the confidential communications of confession. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal also said the state’s mandatory reporter laws are criminal in nature and do not provide a right for civil suits, even if the priest had learned of the abuse outside of the confessional.
But the Louisiana Supreme Court found that priests are mandatory reporters of abuse and said Mayeux could testify about her alleged confessions. The justices sent the case back to Caldwell to determine “whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report.”
The diocese ultimately sought relief from the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Louisiana high court’s ruling violated the First Amendment by allowing states to override a religion’s view of what its own faith means and requires.
The nation’s top court declined in January to intervene in the case.