This past week the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that a trial judge should require a priest to testify so that the judge can determine whether what a girl told the priest was a “confession.” The girl is now a teenager who alleges that a different priest sexually abused her. She says she told a different priest about it, but that priest did not report the abuse to authorities. The court fight has centered on whether the priest who spoke to the girl and learned about the sex abuse can be required to tell about it now.
The case raises an important question. The clergy-penitent privilege, as it is called in North Carolina, is supposed to protect the confessor, by forbidding the clergy who hears his confession from being forced to testify about it. In this case, it seems, it’s the victim who talked, not the perpetrator, and is it correct to call what she said a “confession”? She may have thought she was confessing sin, but she was reporting a sex crime. For the church to fight a subpoena to the priest, or to claim that the priest could not report what he learned, seems an abuse of a well-intended law. The Diocese of Baton Rouge claimed that the “sanctity of the confessional” was now under attack, but the ruling seems to now give the go-ahead for the girl to introduce evidence of “her own confession.” You can read about the case here.