A Louisiana law that requires clergy to report allegations of wrongdoing, even if learned during sacramental confession, is unconstitutional, a state judge ruled Friday.
The case involves Rebecca Mayeaux, a 22-year-old woman who says she was 14 in 2008 when she told a priest in a confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her.
She alleges that the priest, Father Jeff Bayhi, told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
The state Children’s Code says members of the clergy, including priests, rabbis and other ordained ministers are mandatory reporters of suspected abuse, The New Orleans Advocate explained. The law provides an exception when the allegations are revealed during a confidential religious communication like confession.
However, the code — specifically Article 609 A(1) — also states that “notwithstanding any claim of privileged communication, any mandatory reporter who has cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare is endangered” must report that information to the proper authorities.
Father Bayhi testified Friday that he would be automatically excommunicated if he revealed what was said in any confession.
“If we ever violate the seal, it’s over. It’s finished,” said Father Bayhi in response to a question from one of his attorneys, Don Richard.
When Richard asked if he would ever violate the seal of confession, Father Bayhi replied, “Knowingly? Absolutely not. If that’s not sacred, no one would ever trust us.”
The priest, who was ordained 37 years ago this May, said he cannot even disclose if a confession took place.
Father Paul Counce, a canon lawyer with the Baton Rouge diocese, also testified that a priest’s violation of the seal is “an immense sin.”
District Judge Mike Caldwell proceeded to rule that the regulation violates the priest’s constitutionally protected religious freedom rights.
“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Father Bayhi said as he left the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge said in a statement that the decision to “uphold the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is essential and we appreciate the ruling.”
Caldwell’s ruling is subject to an immediate appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“We’ll evaluate where we go from here,” said Brian Abels, one of Mayeaux’s attorneys.
Caldwell acknowledged the state undoubtedly has a compelling interest in protecting children from abuse, but he said the article he struck down was not the least restrictive way to do so.