The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that as a mandatory reporter, a priest who learns of a sexual assault on a child must report it — even if he learns about it during confession.
The decision is the result of a case in which a 12-year-old girl confessed to Reverend Jeff Bayhi of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton, Louisiana, that one of the other parishioners was behaving inappropriately with her in 2008.
According to court documents, George Charlet, Jr. began grooming the victim when she was 8-years-old. By the time she was twelve, he was sending her daily Bible verses via email that also contained “seductive nuances.” He instructed the victim to keep the nature of the emails private, because “no person, other than God, would understand their mutual feelings for one another.” Charlet allegedly “kissed her aggressively, sticking his tongue down her throat, and fondled her breasts underneath her shirt and bra” on one occasion.
The victim claimed that she told Bayhi about the abuse on three separate occasions. She said that the accused church member had told her he “wanted to make love to her,” but instead of reporting the abuse, Bayhi allegedly told her to handle the problem herself because “too many people would be hurt” if she said anything. “This is your problem,” court documents claim Bayhi said, “sweep it under the floor.”
The East Feliciana’s Sheriff’s Office was investigating the alleged impropriety, but dropped the case when Charlet suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009.
The victim and her family are suing the church for damages suffered as a result of the ongoing abuse, which they claim Bayhi could have prevented had he contacted authorities, as they believe was his duty as a mandatory reporter. A mandatory reporter is defined in Louisiana law as “any priest, rabbi, duly ordained clerical deacon or minister, Christian Science practitioner, or other similarly situated functionary of a religious organization, except that he is not required to report a confidential communicaiton…from a person to member of the clergy who, in the course of the discipline or practice of that church…is authorized or accustomed to hearing confidential communications.”
“In that instance,” the law reads, “he shall encourage that person to report the allegations to the appropriate authorities.” The victim and her family believe that Bayhi should have encouraged her to report the abuse, and thereby bring it to an end, instead of asking her to “sweep it under the floor.”
An appeals court ruled that Bayhi was not required to report the contents of the victim’s confession, and that the church was not liable for damages caused by the abuse. But the state’s high court vacated that ruling, claiming that the lower court had erred when it said that because the victim had communicated during a confession, Bayhi was not a mandatory reporter.
The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge issued a statement in which it claimed that the court was “attack[ing] the seal of confession.”
“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” the statement reads. “The position of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi is that the Supreme Court of Louisiana has run afoul of the constitutional rights of both the Church and the priest, more particularly, has violated the Establishment Clause and the separation of Church and State under the first amendment.”
The statement also noted that a priest who violates the seal of confession is subjected to an automatic excommunication unless the Pope intervenes.
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
Raw Story is a progressive news site that focuses on stories often ignored in the mainstream media. While giving coverage to the big stories of the day, we also bring our readers' attention to policy, politics, legal and human rights stories that get ignored in an infotainment culture driven solely by pageviews.
Founded in 2004, Raw Story reaches 9 million unique readers per month and serves more than 30 million pageviews.