Louisiana Supreme Court Protects Seal of Confession

News: US News
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  October 31, 2016   

A priest in the confessional can't be forced to disclose information from confessional

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NEW ORLEANS (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Louisiana Supreme Court is protecting the Catholic seal of confession by finding that laws, which categorize priests as "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse, do not apply to priests who discover such information while hearing confessions.

In its ruling Friday, October 28, the High Court affirmed, "Any communication made to a priest privately in the sacrament of confession for the purpose of confession, repentance, and absolution is a confidential communication … and the priest is exempt from mandatory reporter status."
The ruling was referring to article 609 A(1) of the Louisiana Children's Code (LCC):

With respect to mandatory reporters: Notwithstanding any claim of privileged communication, any mandatory reporter who has cause to believe that a child's physical or mental health or welfare is endangered as a result of abuse or neglect or that abuse or neglect was a contributing factor in a child's death shall report in accordance with Article 610.

The LCC does define members of the clergy, including priests, rabbis and ministers as mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse. But the state Supreme Court's recent review found that legislative history "provides further proof the Legislature never intended to impose such mandatory reporter status on priests when administering the sacrament of confession."
The case began in 2009, when Rebecca Mayeux, now 22, sued the diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Jeff Bayhi, whom she accuses failed to act on information she allegedly revealed to him in the confessional. She claims that during confession in 2008, when she was 14, she told Fr. Bayhi, who was then her pastor at Assumption Catholic Church in the diocese of Baton Rouge, that a fellow parishioner was sexually abusing her. She says Fr. Bayhi didn't act on the information to stop the abuse.
During a district court hearing in February, Fr. Bayhi testified that under the Catholic Church's strict seal of confession, he could neither disclose what was said in the confessional nor even confirm whether a confession took place. To do so, he related, would mean automatic excommunication for him. "If we ever violate the seal, it's over. It's finished," said Bayhi.

When asked at that time if he would ever violate the confessional seal, Fr. Bayhi responded, "Knowingly? Absolutely not. If that's not sacred, no one would ever trust us."

District Judge Mike Caldwell in the lower court ruling struck down Article 609A(1), saying it violates the priest's constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.

The state Supreme Court — agreeing with the lower court's intent to protect the priest's religious rights — nevertheless vacated Judge Caldwell's "premature" decision striking down article 609A as unconstitutional, ruling instead that the law can remain, "because a priest under these circumstances is not a mandatory reporter; he is excluded because he does not qualify as a mandatory reporter" under the law.


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