Court: Law can shield priests from reporting abuse evidence

Photo courtesy: MGN
Photo courtesy: MGN

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Louisiana law does not require a priest to notify authorities after hearing evidence of child abuse from a child making a religious confession, the state Supreme Court said Friday.

The ruling came in an ongoing 2009 lawsuit against Catholic authorities by parents who say their daughter, now an adult, was sexually abused by a parishioner at an Assumption Parish church.

The ruling deals with a section of Louisiana’s Children’s Code requiring health workers, teachers, clergy and others to report evidence of child abuse to authorities. A lower court held the law unconstitutional because it would force priests to violate their religious beliefs by reporting information from confessions.

But the Supreme Court ruling analyzed the law and concluded that religious leaders are exempt from the requirement when they hear evidence of child abuse in a “sacramental confession.”

In the lawsuit, the defendants are the now-deceased alleged abuser and his business, along with Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, the Diocese of Baton Rouge and the priest who the parents say failed to report the abuse.

Friday’s unsigned ruling says a district judge was premature in ruling on the constitutionality before the court legally determined whether the priest learned of the alleged abuse in communications that did not involve a religious confession.

The 17-page ruling then goes into a lengthy analysis of legislative action regarding the children’s code, citing a 2003 resolution stating that a priest can be required to provide information from conversations or communications not related to confessions, such as “secular counseling.”

“As the comments show and the statutory language reveals, the Legislature always intended to exclude priests from the definition of a ‘mandatory reporter’ when administering sacramental confession,” Friday’s ruling said.

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