LOUISIANA: Judge strikes down law requiring confessors to report abuse

seal of confessionHave you followed at all the court battle in Louisiana concerning the Seal of Confession and obligation to report certain crimes?

From CWN:

A Louisiana judge has ruled unconstitutional a new state law requiring priests to report sexual abuse that is mentioned in a sacramental confession.

Judge Mike Caldwell made his ruling in a long-running and complicated case in which Father Jeff Bayhi had been directed to testify about what a young woman reportedly told him in a confession. The young woman has said that she told Father Bayhi about being molested by a member of his parish. Father Bayhi had refused to testify, citing the inviolability of the confessional seal.

Judge Caldwell ruled that the state law making priests mandated reporters of sexual abuse was unconstitutional insofar as it applied to confessions, since it violated religious freedom.

In an earlier phase of the case, the Louisiana Supreme Court had said that Father Bayhi could be required to testify, because in this case the penitent had waived the protection of the confessional seal. Church officials pointed out that the seal cannot be waived, and a priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession under any circumstances. Last year the US Supreme Court had declined to hear the case.

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  1. Cantor says:

    Can a priest impose as a condition of penance that a penitent surrender himself to officials in the case of abuse? Or, as a minimum, that he resign from any position that places him in contact with vulnerable persons? Or is he truly required to stand by and do nothing when he knows that the voice of the confessed child molester is the person in charge of the parish youth ministry?

    Texas law, by the way, also extends the mandatory reporting requirement to those normally exempt as privileged communications including clergy. [Family Code Sec 261.101(c)]

  2. Cantor: Texas law may, indeed, extend mandatory reporting to exempt communications including clergy, however, I don’t know of any priest worth his vocation who would willingly, even under civil compunction or exercise of the war power of the state, willingly violate CIC 983 paragraph 1, which would, upon violation, incurr a laetae sententiae excommunication. While I would never want to be faced with the choice of subjecting myself to the tender ministrations of the police state, I would be more concerned about the eternal effect of such an act.

    This is one of the reserved offenses, by the by. Maybe Dr. Peters can chime in, but IIRC, it’s reserved to the Holy Father alone for its lifting. While I profess no idea how the current occupant of the Chair of Peter would view this…I can only imagine how previous pontiffs would view a priest who divulged, willingly or under duress, the contents of a confession.

    IMHO, a state can legislate anything it wants. Doesn’t mean that, all things being equal, we are compelled to deny our Church or violate its laws when there is a conflict.

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    This is good news.

    “Texas law, by the way, also extends the mandatory reporting requirement to those normally exempt as privileged communications including clergy.”

    “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; render unto God what is God’s.” Caesar does not get to determine whether or not a priest can divulge a confession. Excommunication by the State is a paltry thing compared to being excommunicated by the Church.

    The Chicken

  4. Matt R says:

    I think that what the first commenter here means would not necessarily be confessions, though Texas might envision those as being included, but private conversations for purposes of advice and counseling. Certain professionals (counselors mainly) and pastoral staff are exempt from reporting harassment and sexual assault under Title IX, and these are not confessions by any stretch. In Ohio, where I am currently, clerics, doctors, and lawyers have special requirements, but they can find ways to report abuse.

  5. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Sexual abuse leaves the victim “scarred for life” , as the CCC says 2388,2389 and is connected to “a regression toward animality” . Several people who are close to me have been sexually abused by adults when they were young.

    I went back to the CWN article and followed one of their links, because the story had to have been missing something :

    “. . . told Father Bayhi about being molested by a member of his parish.”

    The way it was presented in the CWN article, it didn’t really make any sense that the part above would be useful in court. What this linked article from CWN (it forces you to choose an answer to a survey before allowing you to read the article) State can’t make priests tell of confessed abuse, judge says ; Arkansas online , claims is that:

    Mayeaux says she was 14 in 2008 when she told Bayhi during confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Clinton, told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

    So, in this case, it is the penitent who is actually suing the confessor and the diocese.

    Ouch, ouch, and ouch again . . . (did I mention “ouch” yet?)

    If I’m following this correctly, it appears as if the confessor and the diocese of Baton Rouge are being sued by the penitent for a crime which a 64-year-old parishoner allegedly committed. Why wasn’t the perpetrator sued instead ? Is he dead now, or something ?

    God bless Judge Mike Caldwell : 2 Thumbs up , and prayers for the victim, for him and for the clergy of the diocese of Baton Rouge

  6. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Following on from Grumpy Beggar’s comment (without following the link): would Fr. Bayhi be able to deny he said “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it” in the confessional?

  7. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Just to update , I’ve tested the link I posted previously and it goes straight to the article without any popup – so . . . going to post the second link provided by CWN to an article back in July 2014 because it fills in some more of the blanks – here : Diocese denounces Louisiana court order for priest to break confessional seal (no trouble with this link either)

    . . . Posting several excerpted paragraphs of the article in context because it contains the rest of the facts and , in its course, adresses the question posted above by Venerator Sti Lot:

    The Louisiana Supreme Court, in a May ruling, overturned a lower court’s decision and ordered a hearing on a lawsuit brought by parents of a girl who was allegedly molested by an adult man. The parents have named the Baton Rouge diocese and a priest, Father Jeff Bayhi, as defendants in the suit. They claim that when the girl mentioned the man’s sexual advances in the course of making her confession, Father Bayhi advised her not to report the incident.

    Father Bayhi, bound by the seal of confession, cannot report what the girl told him, or what he said to her.

    The man whose alleged advances form the original basis for the lawsuit was under criminal investigation for sexual abuse when he died in 2009. The girl’s parents filed their lawsuit shortly thereafter.

    The Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered hearing to determine whether the girl mentioned alleged sexual abuse in her confession, “and if so, what the contents of any such confessions were.” The court claimed—inaccurately—that the seal of confession protects only the penitent. Since the girl had waived her right to secrecy, the court said, Father Bayhi should be required to testify about the confession.

    Correcting the court’s error, the Baton Rouge diocese said that “the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” and Father Bayhi is prohibited by canon law from divulging anything that he heard in the course of a confession. The court’s decision “assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith,” the diocesan statement said.

    “This matter cuts to the core of the Catholic faith, and for a civil court to inquire as to whether or not a factual situation establishes the Sacrament of Confession is a clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States,” the diocese charged.

    I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say “sweep it under the floor” in my entire life – the way I understand it, it was always worded, “sweep it under the rug.”

    Interesting that, in the chain of events, the confessor and diocese don’t end up being sued until the alleged perpetrator had died . . . kind of takes on the dubious odor of a vendetta once that happened.

    And notwithstanding the seal of the sacrament of Confession being absolute and inviolable and the violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States, just considering this and similar scenarios in light of sheer (im)practicality:

    Can a priest be realistically expected to remember every single sin. . . every single word. . . of every single confession he has ever heard ; every bit of counsel and every single penance he has recommended as well ? And , last time I checked (about a week ago) I wasn’t required to identify myself when I received the sacrament of Reconciliation either . . .So how the heck is the confessor supposed to identify every penitent he has ever ministered to ? The state appears to have been meddling.

    @ Venerator Sti Lot : “Grumpy Bear” asked me to send you his regards. : )

  8. mlmc says:

    G Beggar-the Church is a deep pocket-hence it is a target. Fortunately, the Court has struck down this law which is a direct impingement of the freedom of religion(note-not freedom of worship-a much more limited right).

  9. Imrahil says:


    For my part, I fear a law that requires priests to report less than a prospect of confessionals bugged with technical devices.

    It was always clear that the seal of the confessional holds, and I might say holds especially, against secular laws to the contrary.

    (Though, if technical devices are not used and the State, though sacrilegiously requiring report, at least grants fair process according to its own rules – a rather large if, of course – I don’t think priests would have to fear much in practice. How could “failure to report” possibly be proven?)

    (St. John Nepomuk, pray for us.)

  10. WYMiriam says:

    Perhaps someone can confirm or deny this — I have had the impression, for a very, very long time, that priests are, under the seal of Confession, unable to say even whether a certain person had approached them for Confession.

    If I remember aright, there was a case once long, long ago, of a priest who was being hounded by people who wanted to know if a certain queen (or was it a king?) had been to him for confession. The priest, of course, refused. (I don’t remember how the story ended.)

  11. Giuseppe says:

    Why should a priest even know who was in his confessional? The priest hears the voice of an everyman seeking God’s forgiveness.

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