Catholic ‘seal of the confessional’ upheld as religious liberty issue

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(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)

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  • Jon

    Too bad to see Christian Privilege upheld yet again. Imagine that I were to do the exact same thing – harm children by keeping their abuse secret – and say that I did so because the cosmic overlord Xenu told me to. I’d be (rightly) prosecuted. But if I said it was because I’m Christian so the laws of the land don’t apply to me- I’m all set. It’s the new Jim Crow. One set of laws for Christians, another set for everyone else.

  • Fr Mark Poirier

    This is not applicable to all Christians. Roman Catholics have held the seal of the confessional for hundreds of years as part of the sacrament itself. As the author states, any priest who violates that sacred trust automatically is excommunicated from the Church. The ruling does not apply to all who call themselves Christians, but only to the small group who have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests.

  • yoh

    This is one of the only times in recent memory that the Catholic Church was on the correct side of a religious freedom issue. In most cases they are just looking for excuses to force people to comply with their dogma through involuntary coercive methods.

    Go figure. No if they can only understand the real religious freedom issues when it comes to providing healthcare or demonstrate respect for the privacy of employees.

  • The Catholic Church’s take on confession is interesting. One the one hand, it’s so sacred that it supposedly can’t be violated by child-abuse reporting mandates. But on the other, it’s not so sacred that priests won’t use it as a shield to hide their criminal activities.

    Talk about things that make you go “hmmmmm”!

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  • The Church’s response to sex abuse: http://www.vatican.va/resources/index_en.htm

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  • ROL

    He may have been right to refer to the seal of the confessional but that is an entirely different matter than telling her “to sweep it under the rug” . . .that shows stupidity or a form of collusion.

    I am a former theologian who has long since left behind the RC belief structure.

  • MarkE

    The seal of the confessional is for the confessed sins of the penitent – but this woman wasn’t confessing to a sin she had committed, but rather one that had been committed against her. I believe that actual Biblical guidance (Matthew 18:15-17) would be more applicable. And the RC would have their religious liberty protection because this is living out a Biblical mandate.