BATON ROUGE – A Louisiana appellate court on Aug. 1 ruled that a young woman who claims she was sexually abused as a minor by an adult member of the congregation of Our Lady of Assumption Roman Catholic church in Clinton can tell a jury what she claims to have told a priest during confession.
In a 2-1 decision, three 1st Circuit Court of Appeals judges handed a victory to Rebecca Mayeux and her legal team, who are seeking damages for alleged sexual abuse by an adult parishioner Mayeux claims to have suffered from the age of 12. At the same time, they affirmed the privileged, protected status implicitly or explicitly granted to religious organizations in the U.S. Constitution.
The 1st Circuit Appeal Court judges also affirmed state District Court Judge Mike Caldwell's February ruling that a provision in the Louisiana Children Code that requires clergy to report allegations of wrongdoing even if learned during confidential communications with practitioners, such as taking place during the sacrament of confession. Caldwell ruled that the alleged victim's attorneys cannot assert in court that the Rev. Jeff Bayhi was required to report what Mayeux allegedly told him in confession.
"The 1st Circuit did uphold Judge Caldwell's rulings that Rebecca can testify as to what she told the priest in confession and that our claims against the diocese remain," Brian Abels, one of Mayeux's attorneys, was quoted as saying in The Advocate.
Mayeux and her legal team were seeking damages against George Charlet Jr., the alleged perpetrator of the sexual abuse of Mayeux when she was a minor. Charlet died of a heart attack in 2009 when he was 65, the same year Mayeux and her family filed their original lawsuit, however.
That was about a year after Mayeux claims she informed Our Lady of Assumption the Rev. Jeff Bayhi of Charlet's alleged sexual abuse. Mayeux reportedly has said that the Rev. Bayhi advised her to keep the sexual abuse to herself as it would hurt others. Bayhi and the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Baton Rouge are named as defendants in the lawsuit as a result.
The Rev. Bayhi has been adhering to the Roman Catholic Church's policy that clergy under no circumstances are to divulge any information whatsoever or comment on any communications that take place during the sacrament of confession, a core aspect of the Roman Catholic Church's institutional foundation.
"It's the general obligation of priest never to reveal what was said in confessional. What the courts do with that is a whole different ball game," Fred Kammer, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans, told the Louisiana Record.
Aspiring Roman Catholic priests are taught the fundamental tenet that the sacrament of confession is sacrosanct during their training. That holds even if a church member were to inform a priest in confession that he murdered someone, Kammer added.
"It's the way we encourage people to be open and truthful so that they may receive God's forgiveness," he explained.
That same rule also extends to Roman Catholic priests being forbidden to defend themselves in courts of law.
"Priest have gone to jail in similar cases," Kammer said. "I don't know what he's going to say, but if I were him I would say that Canon Law forbids me from saying anything regarding what was said in the confessional."
This privileged legal status stretches back to ancient times and by and large continues to hold up as one of three such privileges in societies today despite their being broken down to some extent over the years, Kammer added. The three are the confidentiality of communications between attorneys and clients, that between doctors and patients and between priests and penitents.
Currently a Roman Catholic priest as well as director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Kammer practiced law as an attorney both secularly and while a priest for 10 years. During that time he provided civil legal services to the poor on behalf of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, he explained.