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“Religious freedom” ruling absolves priest who didn’t report sexual abuse

“Religious freedom” ruling absolves priest who didn’t report sexual abuse

The law of the confessional has trumped the law of Louisiana in a February 26 court ruling. The ruling favors a Catholic priest, the Reverend Jeff Bayhi of Our Lady of Assumption in Clinton, who allegedly advised a 14-year-old (now 22-year-old) girl to “sweep it under the rug” when she told him she had been sexually abused by another parishioner.

From The Advocate:

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.

The Reverend Bayhi, who hosts a radio show, “A Closer Walk with Father Jeff Bayhi,” and the Baton Rouge bishop responded to the ruling:

“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.”

According to Religion New Service,

Mayeaux’s attorneys pledged to appeal. The seal of the confessional has been challenged before, and at least one bishop has said he would violate it in favor of “the greatest good, the protection of innocent people.”

In December 2015, Bayhi sued a Louisiana television station covering the lawsuit for defamation. In The Advocate:

“During this reporting, WBRZ-TV and its employees presented Mayeux’s claims against Father Bayhi in such a manner as to create the impression that those claims [made by Mayeux] were facts instead of mere allegations,” lawyer Henry Olinde Jr. writes in Bayhi’s suit against the station.

WBRZ news director Lee Polowczuk said Dec. 22 that the station’s attorneys were reviewing the suit and he could not comment on the specific allegations in it. “We’re confident the outcome will be in WBRZ’s favor,” he added.

WBRZ’s coverage in July 2014 summarizes the history of the abuse:

It all began in 2008, when Rebecca met George Charlet Jr. at church. Charlet was a well known long time parishoner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton. He was also the owner of Charlet’s Funeral Home in Zachary. A picture of the two showed the close relationship Charlet thought he had with the teen. It’s also a picture from when she claims Charlet was abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture. On three different occasions, Rebecca sought spiritual guidance through confession from one of the men she respected most in her life, to guide her in the right direction.

“I went to the priest and asked father what do I do,” Mayeux said. “He told me to take care of it. So in my own way I took care of it.”

Was Mayeaux coming to her priest for guidance or for sacrament?

Rebecca claims when Father Bayhi was alerted of the sexual abuse he did nothing and did not report it to the victim’s parents or authorities. Once Rebecca’s parents found out, the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s office launched an investigation. But, in a surprise twist Charlet died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack, and the criminal case was dropped.

“Our paramount concern is the safety of the child,” Brian Abels, Rebecca Mayeux’s attorney said.

Abels claims his client went to the priest not trying to confess her sins, but looking for guidance. Abels believes the priest had a mandatory duty under the state’s children’s code to report the crimes he knew were taking place.

“Regardless if it’s Baptist or Catholic or Methodist or whatever the denomination, when someone in that type of authority learns these matters, regardless of the setting, take some action,” Abels said. “Protect that child, especially if you know things are ongoing and may escalate.”

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Leslie Scoopmire

So, if the priest is claiming that the victim WAS confessing (which, by the way, she has nothing to confess because she is the victim of abuse), then as a mandatory reporter, he simply asks her if he can support her in going to her parents and then the authorities. If she was confused and confessing thst being abused is perceived by her as a sin, the priest should clarify that she being victimized is NOT sinful, and once again, offer to help the young lady talk to her parents and the authorities- which also would not violate the seal of the confessional. If she was asking advice and not confessing, the seal of the confessional is not in effect (If her ABUSER had been confessing, I have always wondered why part of obtaining absolution is not only contingent upon ceasing said behavior but turning oneself in). Unless she came to the priest using the format of confession AND refused to allow him to report, then this seems like a smoke screen, a crime, AND, to put it mildly a pastoral betrayal, much less failure.

That failure seems to indicate a mindset that views children as sexual objects who are not REALLY harmed by being violated as much as the Church might be by exposing and stopping said abuse, and boy, that sounds familiar....

The point in the press release that emphasizes that the abuser was NOT an employee of the parish does not absolve the diocese/parish/priest from being accessories in failing to report as mandatory under law.

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Chris Steele

Sorry, no. As horrible as things like this are, what's said in the confessional stays there. As confessors, we don't get to decide what the penitent considers a sin (and many abuse victims do consider their victimhood a sin; it's the evil nature of abuse). Therefore, we don't get to judge which parts of the matter of confession are under the seal. To report, he would have had to get the penitent to tell everything again in a new forum that he made clear was NOT confession. Abuse is a horrible thing and being in the confessional and feeling helpless. The seal is inviolable. No 'unless' or 'under most circumstances' about it.

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John Chilton

Is that the Episcopal view of the confessional, or the Roman? Actually, is that really the Roman view of the confessional?

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Rosalind Hughes

I am reminded of something Jesus said about whether it was right to heal or to harm on the sabbath; and whether, in fact, that blessed thing was made for humanity, or whether we must sacrifice our humanity to it.

Using the seal of confession as an excuse to ignore the suffering of the innocent is perverse.

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Jon White

Absolution for sins doesn't free one from accountability for criminal conduct. I believe that what God desires most is for each of us to thrive and live fully into the person we were created to be. Confession further this goal because it allows people to lay their full and true selves before God's loving mercy. Though the victim may believe their abuse is sin, the priest should know better and should do what they can to allow them to thrive, which in this case means ensuring an abuser faces justice and supporting a child victim and not hiding behind pious excuses for not rocking the boat.

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I am at a loss to figure out, based on the facts as presented in this article, how the Seal of the Confessional even comes into play, let alone was under threat by Louisiana's mandatory reporting law.

To wit: "At issue is a long-running case involving Rebecca Mayeaux, a 22-year-old who claims that when she was 14 she told the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, a Catholic priest, during confession that a church member was abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi told her to “sweep it under the rug.”"

When a 14 year old girl says to a priest in a confessional that she is being abused by a third party, who exactly is the sinner here and to whom does the seal attach?

Since the young woman was the victim, she cannot confess her abusers sins, and if absolution was pronounced in the course of the ritual, it did not apply to the act of the perpetrator, and so the seal is not in effect relative to this particular crime. Since the victim did not commit the offense how could she be absolved for an abuse committed against her? Do we absolve the store owner if he should tell the priest that he was robbed and that he knows the identity of the thief? Of course not!

It appears that the young woman used the confessional as a place to have confidential access to a priest to tell him what was happening to her in place of safety. Just because an adolescent victim of sexual abuse will blame herself for her victimizers behavior, it does not follow that she sinned or that, while divulging the abuse, this was in the strict sense a confession of sin. It is also reasonable to expect that the young woman expected the priest to offer her some guidance if not protection. The priest should have known this.

Short of the act of absolution, what was shared was"merely" confidential and therefore could be handled with appropriate deference... i.e. shared with the proper authorities according to the law.

Instead of offering her comfort, safety, and protection, Bayhi instead instructed her to hide the perpetrator's crime and then hid his own error under the false pretense of the confessional. It is shameful that his bishop and chancellor supported this approach in court.

In my view, this was not a case of protecting a first amendment right. It was a case where the state and the church both had a legitimate interest in protecting the abused. Instead, a case of bad theology and rotten pastoral care became a very poor legal ruling. On top of it all, by extending the seal to something that was not a confession, the ruling does harm to the legitimate legal protection of the seal. I hope that it is overturned on appeal.

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John Chilton

I despair that the seal of the confessional is being utterly distorted by the Catholic diocese, and that the court and the rest of us have been duped into falling for this lie. The seal on confession is completely irrelevant here.

The victim was not confessing a sin. She was reporting a crime that had been committed against her. That she did so in confession makes absolutely no difference to the priest's duty to report the crime to civil authorities.

Shame on the diocese and the priest for passing this off as good theology - it's bunk.

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David_Chesterman

I believe the proper answer to the girl would have been while he could not break the vow of the confessional if she were to meet him outside of the confessional after confession, they could get her parents and discuss it. Once the confession ended they could both step out and take these steps.

Apparently he like many was unable to deal properly with a wrong. There also seems to be some confusion in the Roman Catholic Church that confession and repentance takes the place of legal consequences for actions. Persons accused of crimes still must be investigated and go to court if charged.

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