Priests can't be forced to break seal of confession, La. judge rules

Confessional Credit romana klee via Flickr CC BY SA 20 CNA romana klee via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Louisiana law can't force Catholic priests to violate the seal of the confessional, a judge in the state reaffirmed on Friday.

State District Judge Mike Caldwell said in court Feb. 26 that a state law requiring clergy to report sex abuse of minors violated a priest's religious freedom protections for confidential confessions.

The ruling concerns a lawsuit filed by Rebecca Mayeaux, now 22, against Father Jeff Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Mayeaux charges that in 2008, at the age of 14, she told the priest during confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was abusing her. The priest was pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton, 35 miles northeast of Baton Rouge.

Her lawsuit charged that the priest was negligent in reporting abuse and that the diocese failed to train him properly in mandatory abuse reporting law. Mayeaux claims that the priest responded to the abuse report by telling her to "sweep it under the floor and get rid of it," the Associated Press reports.

Fr. Bayhi said that if he revealed anything said in confession, he would face automatic excommunication.

"If we ever violate the seal, it's over. It's finished," he said in court, adding that he would "absolutely not" knowingly violate the seal of confession.

"If that's not sacred, no one would ever trust us."

Louisiana law requires clergy to report sexual abuse. Parts of the law grant an exception when abuse allegations are revealed during confidential religious communication such as confession.

However, other parts of the state code require mandatory reporting "notwithstanding any claim of privileged communication," the New Orleans Advocate reports. Caldwell's ruling struck down the latter requirement.

"We're just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties," Fr. Bayhi said when he left the courthouse.

Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge discussed the case in a statement.

"I extend my compassion and offer prayer not only for the plaintiff who may have been harmed by the actions of a man who was not an employee of the church, but also for all who have been abused by anyone," he said.

Bishop Muench expressed his appreciation of the ruling, adding that "the court's decision to uphold the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is essential."

The ruling can be appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The judge made other decisions about the lawsuit, ruling that Mayeaux may testify to a jury about what she allegedly told the priest in 2008. However, her attorneys may not argue to the jury that Fr. Bayhi was required by law to report the allegations.

The case had gone to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2014, which returned it to a lower court to determine more facts in the case.

The lawsuit has not yet gone to trial. The alleged abuser died in 2009. The plaintiff's attorney said he does not intend to call Fr. Bayhi to testify.

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CNA contacted the Diocese of Baton Rouge for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

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