A victory for the seal of Confession in Louisiana

By Matt Hadro

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Credit: Pleuntje via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Catholic priests do not have to break the seal of Confession to report the alleged abuse of minors, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge, at the center of the case, responded that they were “very pleased” with the court’s Oct. 28 opinion, “which affirms the sanctity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

The case of Fr. Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the Baton Rouge diocese, made national news after he was sued for not reporting the alleged sexual abuse of a child to authorities. The woman who said she was abused, Rebecca Mayeux, claimed that in 2008, when she was a minor, she told Fr. Bayhi during Confession that she had been abused by someone at his parish.

In 2009, she sued the now-deceased parishioner, the diocese, as well as Fr. Bayhi for allegedly knowing about the abuse but not reporting it under the state’s mandatory reporting law.

Fr. Bayhi said he could not testify as to whether the conversation he had with Mayeux even took place, because of the seal of Confession. Priests may not reveal the contents of a sacramental confession or even say whether the confession even took place.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1467 states regarding the Sacrament of Confession:

“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives.”

According to the Code of Canon Law, “a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”

Louisiana has a mandatory reporting law that an adult, if told of a possible case of sexual abuse of a minor, must report the case to the authorities, even if the adult is a member of the clergy. However, an exemption in the law does exist in cases of “confidential communication.”

The court had earlier said it had not resolved the question of whether Fr. Bayhi met the exemption or was a “mandatory reporter” under the state’s law. It decided on the former last Friday.

Their opinion stated that in cases of alleged abuse of a minor, “priests are not mandatory reporters of information acquired”, so long as their “communication is confidential communication” as described in the state’s law, “the priest in the course of the discipline or practice of that church, denomination, or organization, is authorized or accustomed to hearing the confidential communication,” and if he “under the discipline or tenets of the church, denomination, or organization has a duty to keep such communication confidential.”

“Accordingly, any communication made to a priest privately in the sacrament of confession for the purpose of confession, repentance, and absolution is a confidential communication,” the court added, “and the priest is exempt from mandatory reporter status in such circumstances by operation of La. Child. Code art. 603, because ‘under the … tenets of the [Roman Catholic] church’ he has an inviolable ‘duty to keep such communications confidential.’”

The inviolability of the seal had also been affirmed by a state appeals court in August.

The diocese praised the decision to respect the religious exemption to the reporting law, saying it “protects religious freedom, while leaving in place our state's rigorous reporting requirements which serve to protect our children from harm.”

Earlier this year, Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge offered prayers for the victim in the case and for all victims of abuse:

“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.”

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