BATON ROUGE — One case has given rise to another, as the Rev. Jeff Bayhi filed a defamation and false light suit against Baton Rouge’s WBRZ-TV on Nov. 20, alleging the station misrepresented allegations in another case involving the Catholic priest as facts.
The case in question pertained to Rebecca Mayeux, who claims that at the age of 14 she was sexually abused by a now-deceased parishioner in Bayhi's church, Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton. In that case, she alleges Bayhi neglected his duty to Louisiana law by failing to report the alleged abuse. At the heart of the case is the notion that she made these initial claims in confessional. The question is whether the confidentiality of confessional overrides the obligation to report abuse.
"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," Henry Olinde Jr., Bayhi's lawyer who is with the law firm of Olinde & Mercer in Baton Rouge, noted in the suit against WBRZ.
Previously, the Baton Rouge diocese had attempted to block Mayeux's testimony on the grounds of that sacred seal, but State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled that seal was Mayeux's to break. After some back and forth up the legal chain, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the notion that priests are mandatory reporters of abuse and likewise that Mayeux had every right to waive her privilege of confession.
When the diocese attempted to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court on a First Amendment basis, the court declined to intervene.
Even so, Bayhi maintains that as a Roman Catholic priest he is bound by a sacred seal of confession, which asserts he can neither disclose details of a confession or even confirm one has ever taken place.
The suit against WBRZ, which has been assigned to Judge Wilson Fields in the 19th Judicial District Court, arose from a graphic displayed during a news report on Jan. 20, 2015.
Without commenting on the pending litigation, Christine A. Corcos, Richard C. Cadwallader Associate Professor of Law at Louisiana State University, noted a bit of the intricacy facing cases like the one before WBRZ.
"In a defamation case, the plaintiff must show that the statement the defendant made is complaining of and concerning him, that it is a statement of fact, that it is false, that it was published (communicated) to a third party, that the defendant is at fault, and that the publication damaged the plaintiff's reputation," Corcos recently told the Louisiana Record.
In contrast, on the false light side of the issue, the plaintiff must show the defendant communicated offensive information about the clearly identified plaintiff to more than one person. It must also be demonstrated, Corcos noted, that the defendant was at fault in publishing that statement.
"Defamation is a cause of action that goes to the plaintiff's reputation; false light to the plaintiff’s emotional distress," Corcos said.
In the case of the defamation suit, one of the determining factors in the case will be whether Bayhi is regarded as a public or private figure. Private figures, according to Corcos, need only demonstrate the defendant made a false statement negligently. Public figures face a much higher burden of proof, as in the case of celebrities.
"The decisions about whether the plaintiff is a public figure or a private figure, and whether the controversy is a matter of public concern, are made by the judge," Corcos said. "Another area that can be contentious is whether the statement the plaintiff complains of is a statement of fact at all, or whether it’s an opinion. If the statement can be proven true or false, then it’s a statement of fact. If it's an opinion, then generally speaking, the plaintiff cannot prevail."