Louisiana Record

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Priest’s lawsuit against news station accusing him of child molestation has been dismissed

By Dawn Geske | Jul 29, 2016

General court 09

BATON ROUGE, La. — The lawsuit against a television station by a priest over an inaccurate graphic that aired, labeling him as child molester, has been dismissed.

The case was dismissed by a District Judge Wilson Fields against WBRZ-TV. The priest, Rev. Jeff Bayhi, filed the case in regards to a graphic that was aired saying that he abused a parishioner at the age of 14. The graphic also stated that Bayhi died during the time of the investigation.

The graphic aired inaccurately and was corrected at the end of the news broadcast. The 14-year-old girl was abused, but not by Bayhi. She did relay this information to Bayhi during a confessional, which Bayhi is sworn to secrecy from reporting through his priest commandments

Through the lawsuit Bayhi was looking to receive compensation as well as hold the news station accountable for its actions. The station aired the graphic as part of a news story that focused on secrecy of the confessional and allegations of sexual abuse by a now deceased parishioner George Charlet Jr. The graphic didn’t include Bayhi’s name.

“The problem here is the media has some very special protections that nobody else gets when it comes to these type of cases," Henry D H Olinde Jr., partner at Olinde & Mercer, LLC and attorney for Bayhi, told the Louisiana Record. “They have a special procedural vehicle that in the beginning of a case shuts down all discovery and yet makes the plaintiff prove their case. It’s very difficult hurdle to get over procedurally.”

The media is protected under the First Amendment, allowing it to publish any information they want. They still can be held liable for information that is false and can be sued for libel.

“If there is actually defamation to begin with, the media’s retraction can be considered in mitigation of damages, but it doesn’t negate the media’s initial error in publishing its statement,” Christine A. Corcos, associate professor of law at Louisiana State University, told the Louisiana Record. “So a plaintiff might very well want to go ahead and file a defamation suit anyway. In the event that the plaintiff wins the defamation suit, the station could be found liable, even if it corrects the error. The damage amount that’s awarded could be lower than if there were no retraction at all, if the station did correct the error in a timely fashion.”

Bayhi claimed that the graphic has affected his reputation, which includes fighting against child molestation within the Catholic church and was something that even his mother saw air on television.

“It’s been disastrous for him because one of his big projects is he funds, operates, supports and makes bigger, a shelter for the victims of juvenile sex trafficking,” Olinde said. “One of his big drives when he was vocation director was to very carefully screen potential candidates for the priesthood so that the pedophile disasters in the Catholic church would never be repeated. He’s been one of the biggest crusaders for that. That’s why to accuse him of being a child molester was particularly damaging and hurtful.”

Flowing out of the lawsuit is another case that is examining the secrecy of the confessional. It is looking at cases such as this one that had the female parishioner telling Bayhi that she had been sexually assaulted and Bayhi was not able to tell the authorities based on his commitment to the priesthood.

“A priest can’t divulge what happens in a confession and can’t even divulge if someone went to confession,” Olinde said. “It’s the seal and the sacrament. Typically, courts recognize that priest penitent privilege. In been in the law for hundreds of years. The question is now, how far does it go and that’s the question being asked in this other case.”

While an appeal hasn’t been decided upon yet by Bayhi, it is being considered. “We haven’t appealed yet, but we’re considering it," said Olinde. “If we do appeal it, I would say that it’s up to the Court of Appeal. We hope that they would agree with our position.”

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Olinde & Mercer, LLC