Judge rules priests not required to report alleged wrongdoing if learned during confession

A provision of the Louisiana Children’s Code that requires clergy to report allegations of wrongdoing, even if learned in the privacy of the confessional, is unconstitutional, a state judge ruled Friday in a long-running case involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge.

The case involves the Rev. Jeff Bayhi and Rebecca Mayeaux, a 22-year-old woman who says she was 14 in 2008 when she told the Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church pastor in Clinton in a confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her. She alleges 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 of faith, are mandatory reporters of suspected abuse. The law provides an exception when the allegations of abuse 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.

After hearing Bayhi testify Friday that he would be automatically excommunicated if he revealed what was said in any confession, District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled Article 609 A(1) violates the priest’s constitutionally protected religious freedom rights.

“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Bayhi said as he left the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.

Bishop Robert Muench, in a written statement late Friday, said, “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.

“The court’s 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.

The judge ruled earlier in the day that Mayeaux, who sued Bayhi and the diocese in 2009, can testify to a jury about what she allegedly told Bayhi back in 2008, but her attorneys will not be allowed to argue to the jury that Bayhi was mandated to report her allegations to the authorities.

The Children’s Code also requires that, even in cases of confidential religious communications, the clergy member must encourage the child to contact the appropriate authorities in cases of suspected abuse.

In 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court sent the case back to Caldwell’s court to determine “whether the communications between the child and the priest were confessions per se and whether the priest obtained knowledge outside the confessional that would trigger his duty to report.”

Caldwell said Friday the jury must make that determination.

Mayeaux’s suit has not gone to trial. Abels said he hopes it will in 2017. He said he does not intend to call Bayhi as a witness at the trial.

Mayeaux’s alleged abuser, George Charlet Jr., died in 2009.

Earlier Friday, Bayhi testified at the hearing that he would be automatically excommunicated from the church if he ever disclosed what anyone said in the confessional.

“If we ever violate the seal, it’s over. It’s finished,” Bayhi, who will celebrate his 37th anniversary as a priest in May, said under questioning from one of his attorneys, Don Richard.

When Richard asked if he would ever violate the sacred seal of confession, Bayhi replied, “Knowingly? Absolutely not. If that’s not sacred, no one would ever trust us.”

Bayhi said he cannot even disclose if a confession took place.

The Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge and a canon lawyer with the Baton Rouge diocese, likewise testified that a priest’s violation of the sacred seal of confession is “an immense sin.” A priest, he added, is a “representative of God” during a confession.

Counce acknowledged that priests are mandatory reporters when it comes to something they hear outside the confessional but not within.

Michael Deshazo, who also represents Bayhi and the diocese, argued to Caldwell that Article 609 A(1) of the Children’s Code “gravely violates” Bayhi’s religious freedom rights.

Abels countered that the article applies across the board to all mandatory reporters, not just clergy.

“There’s no singling out of anyone here based on religion,” he argued.

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