The First Amendment is repeatedly cited as one of the cornerstones of American civil society, an essential piece of American DNA and one of the cornerstones of democracy. The protection of individual liberties and freedom in the public sphere should never be infringed upon. However, in many Republican states, laws serving to protect religious rights do so at the expense of children’s safety.
Only six states require Catholic clergy to disclose information about child abuse and sexual abuse that they hear during confession, and thirty-three states explicitly ban priests from reporting cases of child abuse that they hear about in confession. Many of these policies were enacted in the wake of the Catholic child sexual abuse scandal that the Boston Globe broke in 2002, however, they obviously do nothing to protect children from the kind of victimization that they have faced for decades in the Catholic Church.
The horrifying story of Rebecca Mayeux (who has volunteered to publicly disclose her name), who was sexually harassed and abused by a 64 year old member of her church when she was 14, is just one of potentially thousands more. ThinkProgress follows the case from 2008, when on three occasions Mayeux spoke to her priest in confession about the abuse she was enduring. According to her lawyers, Priest Bahyi told Mayeux to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it” because “too many people would be hurt” if she spoke out.
The ghastly case got worse when Mayeux told her parents about the abuse in 2009, after her abuser had died, and they filed a lawsuit against Bahyi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge, alleging negligence that led to the continuation of child abuse. It was only then that they realized the extent to which Louisiana’s ‘religious liberty protections’ silence victims.
The Diocese cited the Louisiana Children’s Code, which requires a religious authority figure to report child abuse, “except that he is not required to report a confidential communication.” Furthermore, they argued that Bahyi could not be called to testify about his alleged discussions with Mayeux about her abuse, since they happened under the Catholic “seal of confession.”
Then, the Diocese went one step further and took legal action to prevent Mayeux from testifying in her own case. They claimed that she couldn’t testify about what happened in confession because Bahyi could not defend himself against her accusations.
After seven years of legal battles, the only concession Mayeux has won is the right to testify in her own suit. Her case is scheduled for 2017, but it is likely that there will be more hurdles.
Mayeux’s case is a testament to the barrage of obstacles victims of abuse within the Catholic church face, all in the name of religious liberty. It is impossible to know how many hundreds or thousands of children endure abuse in their churches.
In some cases, the confession booth plays an even more instrumental role in covering up abuse. The renowned child abuse defense lawyer Mitchell Garabedian told ThinkProgress that he has represented children who were abused during confession “on multiple occasions.” He says that confession is often used as “a shield to protect the abuser.”
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), explains that confession is also used to silence priests who suspect abuse in their church. An offending priest or church member will confess to a priest who they think might turn them in. That priest has his suspicions confirmed, but is bound by the seal of confession to not report the abuse. In effect, suspected child advocates are silenced by the institution of confession, which is primarily a way for local clergymen to keep tabs on their congregation and a tool of social control by the Church.
There are similar problems in Protestant churches, although abuse is not nearly as rampant as it is in the Catholic Church. Religious liberty is an important American right, but it does not take precedence over all other rights. Freedom of religion should not be cited as an excuse to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, violating their civil rights, and it should certainly should not be used to protect child abusers and silence their victims.
Unfortunately, the religious right has been persistently adding ‘religious liberty’ laws to the books, and countless children are left to suffer in silence.
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Marisa completed her undergraduate degree in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in creative writing and media studies. She is an advocate of progressive policies and focuses her interests on gender equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.