U.S. Supreme Court will not hear Baton Rouge Catholic confession case

Originally at: http://www.nola.com/crime/baton-rouge/index.ssf/2015/01/catholic_confession_case_baton.html

by Emily Lane

The Supreme Court of the United States will not hear a petition by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge regarding a civil lawsuit the diocese says threatens the confidentiality of religious confession, according to theSCOTUS blog.

The petition seeks to block a woman from testifying in a civil suit against the church and priest about what she said in confession as a child regarding allegations that a fellow parishioner sexually assaulted her. The high court’s decision means the lawsuit will move forward in state District Court. The blog, which reports on orders from the U.S. Supreme Court, said Tuesday (Jan. 20) morning the diocese’s request for a review of the Louisiana State Supreme Court’s ruling on the case was denied.

Ahead of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling, which was rendered in May 2014, the plaintiff argued priests should be subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding abuse of minors if the person who makes the confession waives confidentiality. Normally, priests are exempt as mandatory reporters in the setting of the sacrament of Reconciliation, but the case presented some conflicts with mandatory reporting duties set forth in the Louisiana Children’s Code regarding sexual assault of minors. The decision by the state’s high court stated confidentially is intended to protect the person who made the confessions, not the person who receives them.

By allowing the woman to testify about what she confessed, however, the diocese has argued it would place the priest the difficult position of being unable to defend himself unless he break the confidential seal of confession, making him subject to excommunication.

The child who allegedly made the confessions, Rebecca Mayeux, is now 20 years old and opened up in an interview with WBRZ in July about what she told Baton Rouge Baton priest Jeff Bayhi during the alleged confessions.

The Mayeux family sued the priest and diocese for damages, claiming they were negligent in allowing the alleged abuse to continue and should have reported it to authorities. A criminal investigation by East Feliciana Sheriff’s Office into the alleged sexual abuse was ongoing when the accused church member died suddenly in February 2009 of a heart attack. The Mayeux family filed the lawsuit against the church and the estate of the accused molester five months later, in July 2009. The suit also names the estate the alleged molester as a defendant.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling did not decide the case but ordered it returned to the District level for a hearing to let both sides present evidence about the nature of the confessions. The hearing would decide if the communications between Mayeux and Bayhi should be considered religious confessions and/or explore the content of what was allegedly said.

In a statement released Tuesday (Jan. 20) afternoon by the diocese, the church says it plans to press forward with constitutional challenges to the lawsuit, saying the case has “significant ramifications for religious freedom in Louisiana and beyond.”

The statement says: “The Diocese and Fr. Bayhi are disappointed that the Court denied our request, at least at this stage, to intervene in this case…(We) will continue (our) efforts to protect the guarantees of religious freedom set forth in our state and federal constitutions, and are confident that those efforts will, in due course, be successful.”

One of the attorneys for the diocese, Daniel Ortiz of Charlottesville, said the court’s decision is not in any way a reflection on the merits of the diocese’s position, which challenges the constitutionality of allowing the court to rule on a religious issue.

Only about 1 percent of cases seeking to be heard by the nation’s high court are granted a review, he said, and the U.S. Supreme Court does not give reasons for its denials. “This isn’t terribly unexpected,” Ortiz said. “But it’s a little disappointing.”

The heart of the diocese’s position focused on the constitutionality of allowing courts to determine civil liability of a confession. The diocese argued that allowing the state to interpret what constitutes a religious confession in determining if the content is privileged information violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s like the courts determining what’s kosher or not… They just can’t do it; it’s a religious idea,” Ortiz said.

From here, the case goes back to the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Ortiz says the legal team will regroup on the case as it moves forward, and similar constitutional challenges will likely persist on the lower level.

Brian Abels, the attorney for the Mayeux family, said a July 20 trial date has been set for the case, and the family hopes to see it move forward.

“This is something Rebecca’s been living with (for years),” he said. “We really want it to go to a jury.”


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