A Baton Rouge trial judge will be allowed to determine whether a teenager’s communications with her Catholic priest about alleged sexual abuse by an older parishioner were actually confessions or if the priest had a duty to report the allegations.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to intervene in the case, which has pitted state laws meant to protect children against the age-old secrecy surrounding religious confessions.
State District Judge Mike Caldwell, who sits on the 19th Judicial District Court, has said the priest would not be legally compelled to break the seal of confession by testifying about what the young woman told him. The Diocese of Baton Rouge, however, has argued that if the girl testified about the confessions, the priest would have to either accept her version of events or break the seal and face automatic excommunication.
The case involves a woman who claims that in 2008, when she was 14, she told her pastor she was sexually abused by a now-deceased church parishioner. The woman, Rebecca Mayeux, has said the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, of Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton, responded by telling her it was her problem and she should “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
In 2009, Mayeux’s parents sued Bayhi, the Baton Rouge diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, and George Charlet Jr., the man who allegedly abused her. They argued in the lawsuit that the priest neglected his duty under state law to report the alleged abuse to authorities.
The Baton Rouge Diocese has said Bayhi responded appropriately because the information came to him during confession, a sacrament that includes a seal of confidentiality no priest can break.
“The Diocese and Father Bayhi are disappointed that the court denied our request, at least at this stage, to intervene in this case, which has significant ramifications for religious freedom in Louisiana and beyond,” the Diocese said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The denial of the writ is in no way a ruling on the merits of the case, nor does it preclude the Diocese or Father Bayhi from pursuing constitutional challenges which have not yet been ruled upon by the trial court.”
Brian Abels, the Mayeuxs’ attorney, did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
The Mayeuxs’ lawsuit alleges that Charlet, who died in February 2009 at the age of 65, began emailing Mayeux in the summer of 2008 and that the emails quickly increased in frequency and became “laced with seductive nuances.” The suit contends Charlet ultimately kissed and fondled Mayeux.
The lawsuit alleges that Mayeux went to confession three times, telling Bayhi that Charlet had inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her that “he wanted to make love to her.”
Bayhi allegedly told Mayeux she needed to handle the situation herself because “too many people would be hurt” otherwise, according to the lawsuit. Charlet’s alleged abusive acts continued after the confessions, the suit adds.
Mayeux testified in a deposition that she did not understand the nature of the sacrament of confession and did not intend for Bayhi to keep what she told him a secret. Mayeux said she knew that the purpose of confession was to absolve sins, but that Bayhi had not instructed her to perform a penance after she described her encounters with Charlet.
When asked in the deposition whether a priest can “talk about the confession to anyone,” Mayeux said she thought “certain things were bendable,” according to court records.
The diocese sought to block Mayeux’s testimony about the confessions at the trial court level, but Caldwell ruled that the priest-penitent privilege was Mayeux’s to break.
The First Circuit Court of Appeal reversed, saying a priest is a mandatory reporter of abuse only when the information is received outside the confidential communications of confession. Therefore, anything discussed in confession was irrelevant, the appeals court reasoned. The court also said the state’s mandatory reporter laws are criminal in nature and do not provide a right for civil lawsuits, even if the priest had learned of the abuse outside of the confessional.
The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed and said Mayeux could testify about her confessions. The court also found that priests are mandatory reporters of abuse, but “whether this particular priest owed this particular duty to the plaintiffs in this particular factual context is a mixed question of law and fact.”
The state Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for a determination of “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.”
The Baton Rouge diocese asked the state Supreme Court to rehear the case, arguing that allowing a court to determine whether the communications were “confessions per se” would violate the First Amendment protection of religion, but the court denied rehearing.
Justice Greg Guidry wrote in a concurring opinion that whether the communication between Mayeux and Bayhi was a “confession per se” under religious doctrine was a separate question from whether the communications should be considered confidential under state law.
The Diocese then sought review at the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling violated the First Amendment by allowing states to override a religion’s view of what its own faith means and requires.
The Mayeuxs’ response echoed Guidry’s statement that the trial court would determine only whether the communications were confidential under law, not religious doctrine.
“The Louisiana Supreme Court did not direct the trial court to determine whether Rebecca’s conversations with Father Bayhi constituted confessions as a matter of Catholic doctrine, and there is no conceivable reason for the trial court to address that question,” the Mayeuxs’ response states. “This case turns on Louisiana law, not religious doctrine.”