The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled last Friday that a priest has no duty to report confidential information heard during a sacramental confession, including information regarding the sexual abuse of children.
Friday’s ruling was an effort to clear up “widespread confusion” caused by its 2014 decision two years ago in a case involving the Roman Catholic Dioces of Baton Rouge.
The case involves Rebecca Mayeus who claimed that in 2008, when she was a minor, she told Fr. Jeff Bayhi (pictured below) during confession that she had been abused by a parish member. In 2009, she sued the now-deceased parishioner, the diocese, and Fr. Bayhi for allegedly knowing about the abuse but doing nothing to stop it and for not reporting it under the state’s mandatory reporting law.
Photo: Shreveport Times
The case made national news when Fr. Bayhi refused to testify as to whether the conversation he had with Mayeux even took place, because of the seal of Confession. Under Catholic Canon Law, priests may not reveal the contents of a sacramental confession or even say whether the confession even took place. To do so would be a clear violation of that law and result in immediate excommunication from the church.
At odds with this Canon Law is Louisiana’s 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.
In a 2014 ruling in the case, the state Supreme Court said a dispute remained “concerning whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report” sexual abuse allegations.
The Supreme Court conceded on Friday that it never “conclusively determined” whether a priest, in administering sacramental confession, is a mandatory reporter of child abuse under provisions of the Louisiana Children’s Code. Such a determination would make priests subject to the mandatory duty to report under the code. The court sought to clear up this ambiguity on Friday by deciding that “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 Baton Rouge Diocese issued a statement late Friday saying it was very pleased with “the Louisiana Supreme Court’s recent opinion, which affirms the sanctity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
While the Baton Rouge Diocese was pleased with the ruling, many people were not. Critics of the decision hold that children will suffer because of this ruling. They contend that a priest has a higher moral obligation to protect children from abuse and if they have knowledge of abuse, whether it is in confession or not, they have an obligation to report it. They question whether church law can or should be held higher the civil law.