The Louisiana Supreme Court found that clergy members can't be legally compelled to report allegations of child abuse that come to light "when administering the sacrament of confession."
The ruling called into question provisions of the Louisiana Children's Code, which bestows "mandatory reporter" status upon priests, requiring them to report child abuse when they hear about it, according to The Advocate.
In a lower court decision earlier this year, District Judge Mike Caldwell declared the provisions of the Children's Code unconstitutional.
In the Supreme Court's opinion, judges were "reluctant to address the constitutionality of legislation unless required to do so." Instead, they relied on exemptions in the Child Code related to confidential communications.
Specifically, the law reads: "... any priest, rabbi, duly ordained clerical deacon or minister, Christian Science practitioner, or other similarly situated functionary of a religious organization, except that he is not required to report a confidential communication," according to the Supreme Court of Louisiana.
In lieu of reporting the abuse themselves, the priest should "encourage that person to report the allegations to the appropriate authorities."
The plaintiff in the case, Rebecca Mayeux, was 14 when Reverend Jeff Bayhi heard her confession that she was suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a fellow parishioner. In their petition to the court, Mayeux claims that Bayhi did not advise her to "report the allegation to the appropriate authorities," but rather, that she should "personally handle the alleged sexually abusive situation" herself.
The Church Militant reports that in a February district court hearing, Bayhi said that breaching the confidentiality of confession would mean automatic excommunication. "If we ever violate the seal [of confession], it's over. It's finished," he said. "If that's not sacred, no one would ever trust us."
The Baton Rouge Diocese issued a statement, according to The Advocate, stating that they were pleased with the Louisiana Supreme Court's ruling.
"The narrow exception to the mandatory reporting laws," the statement reads, "protects religious freedom, while leaving in place our state's rigorous reporting requirements which serve to protect our children from harm."
Mayeux's lawyers said that they were disappointed in the ruling overall, but were "pleased on the overturning of the ruling of unconstitutionality" of the Child Code.