(RNS) A Louisiana judge has ruled that a state law requiring clergy to report child abuse or other crimes learned in the confessional is unconstitutional because it infringes on religious liberty.
At issue is a long-running case involving Rebecca Mayeaux, a 22-year-old who claims that when she was 14 she told the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, a Catholic priest, during confession that a church member was abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi told her to “sweep it under the rug.”
In his testimony, Bayhi told state District Judge Mike Caldwell that he had no choice but to keep Mayeaux’s allegations private because of the inviolability of the seal of the confessional.
Caldwell agreed and ruled Friday (Feb. 26) in favor of Bayhi.
Confession is a Catholic sacrament in which a penitent recounts his or her sins privately to a priest, who then absolves them and usually sets up some regimen of penance, such as extra prayers.
The confidentiality of the sacrament is considered so paramount that under church law a priest who reveals anything he hears in the confessional incurs automatic excommunication.
The Louisiana State Children’s Code includes clergy among the “mandatory reporters” of suspected or known abuse. It makes no exception for the confidentiality of confession and specifically states that “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” must report it to authorities.
Mayeaux’s attorneys pledged to appeal. The seal of the confessional has been challenged before, and at least one bishop has said he would violate it in favor of “the greatest good, the protection of innocent people.”
(Kimberly Winston is a national reporter for RNS)