BATON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana judge has struck down a state requirement that clergy members report suspected child abuse even if they learn about it during a private confessional.
State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled Friday that the requirement — a Louisiana Children’s Code provision — violates the constitutionally protected religious freedom rights of a Roman Catholic priest accused of neglecting his duty to report a teenager’s abuse allegations to authorities.
The Advocate reports that Caldwell ruled in favor of the Rev. Jeff Bayhi in a lawsuit that 22-year-old Rebecca Mayeaux filed against the priest and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2009.
Mayeaux says she was 14 in 2008 when she told Bayhi during confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Clinton, told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”
Bayhi, the priest who heard the young woman’s confession, is making a claim in this case that no one ought to support:
“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Bayhi said as he left the courthouse.
If this becomes a definition of religious liberty, then we ought to lose it. Yesterday if possible.
However, I think what bothers me here is less the court’s ruling — I can grudgingly accept the court protecting the sanctity of the confessional. It is the allegation that the priest told the young woman, who was 14 when she reported this, to “sweep it under the floor.”
Instead, the priest — who probably failed to appreciate the gravity of this confession, and how difficult it was for this young woman to make — needed to tell her: “That’s not right, no one should hurt you like that, and you should report it. And I will help you and stand with you if you need me to.”
He should have encouraged her and empowered her. Not her abuser. He should have helped her find a voice to speak. And not silenced her.
The bishop, of course, is busy defending the ruling as upholding the First Amendment. Bully for him. I would hope he’d talk to his priests about the proper ways to help people who confess being sexually abused, but I won’t hold my breath. There are secrets to be kept. And a social order to be protected. Who cares about the well-being of 14-year-old girls anyway?
I think, however, I’m going to go through the gospels. Clearly I missed that place where Jesus cared more about the free exercise of religion than he did the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable.