The final weekend of the 2016 US presidential campaign grabbed all the headlines but the news out of Louisiana on Friday was significant for those involved in the decades-long issue of Catholic priest sexual abuse.
On Friday, November 4th, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Catholic priests are not mandatory reporters of sexual abuse when they are receiving confidential communications from their parishioners such as in the instance of hearing a confession. The court’s decision was a major victory for the Catholic Church which has spent decades concealing priests from prosecution and attempting to protect the institution by thwarting efforts to change the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse cases.
“Any communication made to a priest privately in the sacrament of confession for the purpose of confession, repentance, and absolution is a confidential communication … and the priest is exempt from mandatory reporter status …” the high court decreed Friday.
However, as a sexual abuse lawyer who has advocated for hundreds of adults who were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests, there is a religious “loophole” for the priest who wants to do the right thing in these horrific cases. As part of the ritual of confession, the priest hears the confession of sins, advises the person confessing (penitent), and offers a penance or a way of repairing the damage done by the confessed sins. Once this is done, it is the priest’s decision whether he will offer absolution to the person confessing. The priest’s decision is based on two factors: 1) Sorrow for the sins committed and, 2) A desire to avoid those sins in the future. Prior to giving absolution (forgiveness), the priest may counsel the penitent to go to the authorities and acknowledge this crime. According to the
law of the church, the priest can’t require that the penitent turn himself in or withhold absolution if he refuses to do so. On the other hand, true sorrow for sin can be demonstrated by a sincere desire to make right what he did wrong. Catholic priests who recognize the severity of child sexual abuse and the damage it causes should make every effort to make the abuser aware that justice must be done.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling is a setback for transparency and justice. It places the power to disclose such a heinous act as child sexual abuse in the hands of the abuser. That is never going to protect children and remove sexual abusers from harming more children.