Fishman Haygood prevails in defamation lawsuit against Baton Rouge TV station
July 18, 2016
A state court has dismissed the defamation lawsuit filed by a Catholic priest against Baton Rouge television station WBRZ-TV.
In his lawsuit, Rev. Jeff Bayhi contended WBRZ-TV defamed him in a news report that summarized allegations of sexual abuse involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. The victim alleged a church parishioner sexually abused her and that she reported the sexual abuse to Bayhi. WBRZ-TV’s reporter correctly recounted the allegations, but a graphic that appeared on the television screen mistakenly stated “woman claims priest abused her at age 14” and “priest died while authorities were investigating.” The mistake was subsequently corrected.
In court, Fishman Haygood attorney Sharonda Williams argued the mistake did not rise to level of actual malice, and the state court agreed.
A state judge Monday dismissed a Catholic priest’s defamation lawsuit against a Baton Rouge television station over its reporting of a long-running court case involving the secrecy of the confessional and allegations of sexual abuse against a now-deceased church parishioner.
The Rev. Jeff Bayhi contends WBRZ-TV defamed him in a graphic that stated “woman claims priest abused her at age 14” and “priest died while authorities were investigating.”
The graphic accompanied a January 2015 news report about the woman, Rebecca Mayeux; the deceased parishioner, George Charlet Jr.; and her pastor, Bayhi.
One of WBRZ’s attorneys argued last month before state District Judge Wilson Fields that the verbal news report was “completely accurate” and that the station corrected the graphic at the end of the newscast. The graphic did not include Bayhi’s name.
The lawyer, Sharonda Williams, acknowledged at the June 20 hearing that the station made an error but did not do so with malice toward Bayhi.
“That does not rise to the level of actual malice,” she argued in asking Fields, of Baton Rouge, to throw out the priest’s defamation claims.
Bayhi’s attorney, Henry Olinde Jr., countered at the June 20 hearing that the TV station recklessly published false allegations about the priest.
“This is an explosive allegation. You don’t throw that around,” he told the judge. “The graphic drowned out what was reported in the background.”
Olinde also argued the corrected graphic “doesn’t make everything all better.”
Fields adopted WBRZ’s arguments in dismissing Bayhi’s suit Monday.
Bayhi, who was in the courtroom last month and again Monday for the judge’s ruling, declined comment afterward.
“Our extensive reporting on the legal case involving Rebecca Mayeux versus George J. Charlet and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge was factually documented through a series of public court filings. Nothing more, nothing less,” WBRZ news director Lee Polowczuk said Monday in a written statement.
Olinde said it’s too early to say whether Fields’ decision will be appealed.
“We’re going to consider what to do,” he said.
Mayeux alleges she was 14 in 2008 when she told Bayhi in a confession that she was being sexually abused by Charlet but that the priest did nothing about it. She and her parents are suing Bayhi, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, and Charlet, who died in 2009 at the age of 65.
In February, one of Fields’ 19th Judicial District Court colleagues declared unconstitutional a provision of Louisiana’s Children’s Code that requires clergy to report allegations of wrongdoing, even if learned in the privacy of the confessional.
State District Judge Mike Caldwell’s ruling came in the Mayeux suit and is being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Bayhi maintains he can neither disclose what happens in any confession nor confirm or deny that a confession ever took place.
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