BATON ROUGE–After Judge Mike Caldwell of the 19th Judicial District ruled earlier this year that a priest does not have to reveal alleged wrongdoings heard in confession, the ruling was automatically sent for appeal to Louisiana's Supreme Court.
"We support the judge's decision," Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Director of Communications Rick Hinshaw recently told the Louisiana Record. "The seal of the confessional is absolutely sacred in Catholic teaching."
The ruling involves the case of a 22-year-old woman who alleges that in 2008 she told Father Jeff Bayhi during confession that she was being sexually abused by a 64-year-old parishioner. The priest did not report the allegations that were revealed under the seal of confession to the authorities.
The parents of the then-14-year-old girl sued the priest and the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2009. In defense of the priest's religious rights and the sanctity of confession, the diocese took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case and sent it back to the 19th District Court.
Louisiana state law requires mandated reporters, including members of the clergy, to report suspected abuse unless the allegations are disclosed in a confidential religious conversation. Article 609 A(1) also states that a mandated reporter must report danger to a child's physical, mental health or welfare, even if that information is revealed during a privileged communication, such as confession.
During testimony, Bayhi told the court that if he revealed anything said in confession, he would be excommunicated. Because of confidentiality, he could not even discuss if there was a confession. Bayhi also told the court that he would never knowingly violate the seal of the confessional.
After hearing the case, Caldwell ruled the law unconstitutional, as it violates the priest's First Amendment religious freedom rights. He did rule that the young woman could testify about her conversation in the confessional, but her lawyers cannot claim that the priest was a mandated reporter and required to report the alleged wrongdoing to the police.
"As Bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge I extend my compassion and offer prayer not only for the plaintiff who may have been harmed by the actions of a man who was not an employee of the church, but also for all who have been abused by anyone," Bishop Robert Muench said in a statement released after the ruling. "The court's decision to uphold the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is essential and we appreciate the ruling."
The case has yet to appear on the state Supreme Court's docket, but for now Muench said the diocese will continue doing what it can to protect its young parishioners.
"The Diocese of Baton Rouge will continue to do all that is legal and possible to prevent and stop the abuse of children and young people by faithfully following the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," Muench said.