NEW ORLEANS — Priests have no legal obligation to break the seal of confessions and report confidential information heard during the sacrament, a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling has declared.

The court acknowledged Oct. 28 that “widespread confusion” resulted from an earlier decision in the lawsuit involving the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge when it determined a priest is a “mandatory reporter” under state statute.

The rules that govern priests in the Catholic church place extreme emphasis on the confidentiality of whatever is said during confession due to the “delicacy and greatness of this ministry,” Father Fred Kammer, a priest and attorney who oversees the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University, told the Louisiana Record, quoting from the Catechism.

Confession is treated with complete secrecy — no exceptions, he said. 

“It’s one of the absolute things you’re taught," Kammer told the Louisiana Record.

If a priest were to be forced to testify to what someone said during confession, he should refuse and face the court’s consequences rather than break the seal, Kammer added.

In its ruling, the court overturned a district court’s judgment that the state’s law defining a “mandatory reporter” is unconstitutional. Under the statute, a mandatory reporter is someone “who has cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare is endangered as a result of abuse.” Such a person is required to report the suspected abuse, even if they obtained the information because of a privileged relationship, such as attorney-client or doctor-patient. The Supreme Court had to determine whether a priest is a mandatory reporter under the statute when he hears a person’s confession.

In July 2009, plaintiffs Robert and Lisa Mayeux filed a lawsuit alleging that a long-time member of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, who had died, had allegedly sexually abused their daughter. The lawsuit included the deceased perpetrator, George J. Charlet Jr., and his business, as well as Reverend M. Jeffery Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The plaintiffs claimed Bayhi is a mandatory reporter under state law who failed to report the allegations of abuse when he heard them from their daughter, who was 14 years old at the time. They also claim the diocese is vicariously liable for Bayhi’s misconduct.

Ahead of trial, the defendants made a motion to exclude any evidence of confessions that took place between Bayhi and alleged abuse vitcim. The issue wound its way to the Supreme Court, which reversed the appellate court’s granting of the motion, finding “the appellate court erred in granting the church’s motion in limine, excluding all evidence of the confession in its entirety as the child/penitent is free to testify and introduce evidence as to her own confession.”

The matter returned to the district court, which ruled in the church’s favor, finding that the state statute violated Bayhi’s First Amendment right to the freedom of religion. The district court declared that the law is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling.

In the Oct. 28 ruling, the Supreme Court noted that questions remain about whether the priest had knowledge outside of confession of the abuse accusations, which would have required him to report the allegations, so the case will go back to the district court.

Throughout the case, Reverend Paul Counce’s testimony as an expert in canon law has been used to illuminate the Catholic church’s doctrine and law concerning the sacrament of penance, also known as confession.

“I wholeheartedly concur with the state Supreme Court’s ruling that priests who hear confessions are exempt from the otherwise obligatory rule to report suspected or apparent child abuse,” he said. “Father Bayhi’s freedom was at stake. If civil law would compel him to testify under subpoena, he is required by the church to refuse. If he did refuse, he perhaps — maybe even probably — would be jailed for contempt of court. If he violates the ‘seal of confession’ — although I can’t imagine this happening — Father Bayhi’s personal status in the church is affected. He immediately loses his job and benefits as a priest and his status as a Catholic in communion with the church, until the Pope himself might readmit him.”

In theory, the privilege granted to the relationship between priests and their parishioners resembles that of attorneys and their clients or doctors and their patients. These protections have expanded and contracted over time, Kammer said. Non-medical doctors, such as psychiatrists, have sought similar status. Meanwhile, laws specifically protecting vulnerable populations, including children, have eroded protections in some respects. The state’s mandatory reporter law is an example.

But in this case, the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of religion becomes a point of tension, Kammer said. However, there are ways around the seal. Kammer said a priest could encourage a parishioner to report the allegations themselves or set up a meeting to take place outside of confession where the priest resumes his status as a mandatory reporter.

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the confidentiality of confession is “integral to the integrity of the sacrament,” Kammer said. Without it, Catholics would likely stop confessing to their priests, which is a foundational aspect of the faith.

“People in confession talk about very, very intimate things," he said.

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