Judge: Law Can't Break Catholic Confessional Seal

| by Nik Bonopartis

Louisiana law can't force Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, a state judge ruled on Feb. 26.

The case centered on a 22-year-old Rebecca Mayeaux, who sued the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2009, The Associated Press reported. Mayeaux said a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her in 2008, when she was 14 years old.

When Mayeaux told Bayhi about the abuse during confession, the priest told her to "sweep it under the floor and get rid of it," Mayeaux and her attorneys claimed.

Bayhi was negligent and should have reported the abuse to authorities, Mayeaux's attorneys charged, citing a provision in the Louisiana Children's Code that says clergy of any faith must report suspected abuse.

The law is unclear, notes The Advocate. Information revealed during confidential religious communication -- like the sacrament of confession -- is exempt from the mandatory reporting requirement, according to the Children's Code.

Another part of the code specifies 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 the allegation to authorities.

Bayhi testified on Feb. 26, and told the court he would be automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church if he revealed anything about Mayeaux's confession, The Advocate reported. The confessional seal also prevented the priest from disputing Mayeaux's version of events.

In his ruling, state District Judge Mike Caldwell said the Children's Code violates religious rights protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Although Mayeaux's legal team can appeal the judge's decision, one of her lawyers told The Advocate they haven't decided whether they'll continue pursuing the case, which has been ongoing for more than six years.

“We’ll evaluate where we go from here,” attorney Brian Abels told The Advocate.

Bishop Robert Muench, the highest-ranking member of the Baton Rouge diocese, issued a statement thanking Caldwell for recognizing the importance of the confessional seal.

"The court's decision to uphold the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is essential and we appreciate the ruling," Muench said.

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