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N.O. Archdiocese clergy abuse much greater than we've been told, attorney memo alleges

David Hammer

NEW ORLEANS — A secret memo written by attorneys for victims of clergy sexual abuse says more than 300 New Orleans Catholic clerics have been accused of abuse in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case. The number of clerics accused by 450 claimants in the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ bankruptcy case dwarfs the 77 names announced publicly by the Archdiocese of New Orleans on a list of clergy considered “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults. The memo also cites documents filed in the bankruptcy case indicating that Archbishop Gregory Aymond overruled the church’s own internal review board and declined to put at least four living priests on his list of credibly accused clergy, even after the board of experts found accusations against those priests to be credible. The memo written by abuse victims’ attorneys was filed under seal in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case and it summarizes other internal church files that also remain secret under a judge’s order. But the memo and some of the supporting church files were obtained by Ramon Vargas, our former reporting partner at The Times-Picayune who now works for the British news site The Guardian. He reported his findings in The Guardian and shared some of the 48-page memo’s contents with WWL-TV. The church said in a statement that "cases cited by The Guardian are instances where information came to light that called into question the facts presented to the Internal Review Board." “Each allegation is complex and unique,” the church’s statement continued. “A finding of credibility by the Internal Review Board is not a determination of guilt in either canon law or civil law. Investigations are ongoing to allow for the acceptance of new information as we endeavor to determine the truth. New information could be new witnesses with contradictory information, discovery of new evidence making the allegation implausible, and in some instances, recanting all or part of the allegation.” The archdiocese adamantly denies that Archbishop Aymond mishandled any abuse claims. It says the facts in the memo are "grossly taken out of context." Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in a statement: "We will continue to learn from the past but I am more focused on the present and the future. We will continue to look for ways to strengthen our safe environment programs and are meeting with survivors to review and enhance our current protocols for responding to allegations of abuse. I only hope that my prayers and the pastoral support the survivors are able to receive will help them and bring them peace.” Portions of the attorneys’ memo Vargas provided to WWL-TV include detailed descriptions of what’s in the church’s personnel files on several of the accused priests. The contents of all those files could not be independently verified, but Vargas said he reviewed two accused priests’ entire files and found the memo accurately described their contents. The four living priests Aymond left off the list are William O’Donnell, Joseph Benson, Luis Henao and Luis Fernandez. This is the first time any allegations against O'Donnell and Benson have been reported. WWL-TV left messages for both of them but didn't hear back. The memo details majority votes by the church’s 10-member review board that found several allegations against O’Donnell were credible, but cites specific documents, including an official decree by Aymond, in which the archbishop wrote the allegations against O’Donnell had “no semblance of truth.” The memo also says Benson acknowledged putting oils on adult men’s genitals as a part of a blessing. It says the review board found one of the men was a “vulnerable adult by reason of his psychotic condition.” The memo says the board unanimously recommended that Aymond remove Benson from ministry but the archbishop didn’t and let Benson retire in 2020, almost nine years later. WWL-TV interviewed Fernandez from his home in Miami in 2020 and spoke to him briefly this week. He denied molestation allegations against him made by a former student at St. John Vianney Prep. Shortly after WWL-TV reported those allegations, the archdiocese announced it had begun a formal penal process against Fernandez but did not add him to the list. Vargas said he spoke last week to Henao’s brother, who said the retired priest is suffering with dementia and was recently cut off from his retirement benefits by the church, under a court order the archdiocese opposed directing it to stop paying benefits to accused priests. Fernandez confirmed the same. Henao was placed on administrative leave in 2002 based on one allegation but was quickly cleared and reinstated. The memo says 15 allegations against Henao were sent to the review board in 2011, and the board found he had “continued in this behavior” after warnings in 2002 and 2009. The memo also cites court documents stating the church paid six-figure settlements to two of O'Donnell's alleged victims. The memo says the archdiocese paid settlements to 132 abuse claimants before filing for bankruptcy in 2020. The archdiocese did not dispute that figure, but it said in a statement that settlement payments do not necessarily indicate the claims are credible. That was directly contradicted by what a top church official, Vicar General Pat Williams, told an alleged abuse victim, who provided a recording of the conversation to WWL-TV. “Certainly, we would not have offered a settlement if (it’s) something that we didn't believe,” Williams told Mark Vath. “You know, it's not like … we just, well, let's see if we can … offer a settlement to make this thing end.”


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