New Orleans archbishop ignored board findings on clerics accused of abuse

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A board which helps the Roman Catholic archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, evaluate abuse allegations against priests and deacons in six cases found clergymen to be credibly accused only for Aymond to ignore the findings and conceal them from the public, a Guardian investigation has found.

Aymond’s management of the cases in question as the leader of the US’s second-oldest archdiocese is outlined in a memorandum which attorneys for victims of clerical sexual abuse prepared and handed to law enforcement in the latter part of last year.

It exposes the latest damaging revelations in a decades-long scandal at the 230-year-old archdiocese, which has been shown to have gone to extreme lengths to cover up for a confessed child abuser. The scandal mirrors similar events involving the Catholic church elsewhere in the US and across the world.

The 48-page memo alludes to secret internal archdiocesan records that were handed over after the local church sought federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 in response to a wave of abuse-related lawsuits. Because confidentiality rules guide the bankruptcy, both church officials and advocates for molestation victims have worked to keep the memo hidden from public view.

The Guardian obtained a copy and noted that the administrative actions outlined within the document starkly contradict transparency promises made by the worldwide Catholic church amid the fallout of its ongoing clerical abuse scandal.

Aymond was among those who offered up those promises when – faced with mounting pressure to come clean about clerical molestation in New Orleans – he published the first version of a list of dozens of priests and deacons who were considered by his archdiocese to be credibly accused sex predators.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond conducts a procession to lead an Easter mass in St Louis cathedral in New Orleans, in April 2020.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond conducts a procession to lead an Easter mass in St Louis cathedral in New Orleans, in April 2020. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

“We have published the names of all those … whom we saw substantiated sexual abuse,” Aymond said during a radio interview on the day of the list’s publication. “My promise is … to be transparent now and in the future.”

Meanwhile, a priest, canon lawyer and vocal critic of the worldwide church, Tom Doyle, said he believes the memo’s contents potentially establish violations of the spirit of landmark 2019 legislation from Pope Francis which is aimed at combating sexual abuse in the worldwide Catholic church.

Doyle, a clerical abuse victim advocate, noted that the so-called Vos estis lux mundi – which means “you are the light of the world” – outlines an obligation to report molestation involving both children and adults who are considered vulnerable.

Other measures of the legislation – which the pope permanently decreed earlier this year – also generally eliminate secrecy requirements for witnesses to misconduct while also calling for the protection of people who report alleged church abuse and possible discipline for officials found to have engaged in cover-ups.

“Unfortunately … the bishops say one thing and do another,” Doyle said upon learning of the memo’s contents. “And one of the things that I’ve noticed in many years of involvement in this … is the culture of audacity.

“They lie all the time, and they lie to protect themselves … And if that’s what’s really going on, it needs to be exposed.”

With respect to one of the priests mentioned in the memo, William O’Donnell, Aymond authorized separate financial settlements of $125,000 and $100,000 for out-of-court resolutions with two people. Those claimants accused O’Donnell of molestation, and the settlement sums come out to an amount that organizations would probably not pay if they had doubts about the allegations’ truthfulness.

Aymond, since becoming New Orleans’s archbishop in 2009, also greenlighted a relatively substantial $87,500 payment to privately settle a molestation claim against a seventh priest – Jerry Dabria – before barring the advisory review board from even considering the allegation for potential credibility.

But it has examined hundreds of documents pertaining to two clerical abuse cases cited in the memo – including one of the five which Aymond ignored after the board of advisors found what it considered to be credible allegations of child abuse. And the memo accurately summarized them.

Two of the cases involve priests whose names have never before been publicly linked to the New Orleans church’s scandal: O’Donnell and Joseph Benson. Another involves one whose name hasn’t been mentioned in connection with the scandal for more than 15 years: Luis Henao, who quietly retired before Aymond’s 2018 list release.

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