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Questions for the Archdiocese 

How much has the Catholic Church in New Orleans spent on the problem of priests' abuse of children? The Archdiocese declines to answer, citing victims' privacy. Lawyers who have represented victims say the Church needs to release the numbers.

In homes in New Orleans and across the country, the body count is measured in lost childhoods, children acting out in rage, teenagers sinking into depression and drug abuse, and the lifelong guilt that often comes from blaming oneself for the misdeeds of a trusted authority figure.

Within the Catholic Church, say critics, it can be measured by the millions of dollars in financial settlements, by the shuttling of child molesters from parish to parish, by the repeated "no comments" by diocesan officials.

By any measure, in the months that have passed since the acts of Boston's Father John Geoghan first became public, Catholics across the country are wrestling once again with the breach of faith between some priests and the most vulnerable of their flock. In response to the escalating crisis, Pope John Paul II met last week in Rome with all U.S. cardinals to address the problem that first gained notoriety in the mid-1980s, when the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe of Vermilion Parish in south Louisiana became the first priest criminally convicted of molesting young boys.

The depth and breadth of the problem -- serial molesters and the leaders who protect them and the church from scandal -- has forced bishops and cardinals across the country to rethink how to handle past and current allegations of abuse. Responding to heightened attention, the Archdiocese of New Orleans recently formed a special investigative board to look into past allegations against clergy.

Yet while a new openness is being encouraged by many diocese across the country, the Archdiocese of New Orleans says it's willing to talk only generally about its future plans and the fledgling board -- and is not willing to offer specifics about what may prove to be scores of molestation cases that made those plans necessary.

On April 19, Gambit Weekly submitted a list of 15 questions to archdiocesan spokesman Father William Maestri. Specific questions were about the number of metro-area priests accused of and removed for sex abuse, the number of settlements and cash paid out to victims, and the screening process and background checks conducted on seminary students. Maestri declined to answer any of the questions. (For a complete list of the questions, click here.)

"I'm not going to be able to answer those individual questions for obvious reasons. For the sake of confidentiality -- and for the respect of others -- I don't want to go down the road of opening that box and discussing that," says Maestri. "What I'd be glad to do is give you a general statement about our general policy."

Attorney Richard Bordelon of Denechaud & Denechaud, the law firm that represents the archdiocese, also declined to answer questions about past abuse cases. "I'm not going to comment beyond what Father Maestri had to say," Bordelon says.

Critics say such responses are unacceptable -- now more than ever. Raul Bencomo, a New Orleans attorney who first represented victims of serial molester Gauthe before turning to lawsuits against the New Orleans archdiocese, says the Church's muted reply typifies the archdiocese's attempts to "hide behind the cloak of victims' privacy."

Besides, he says, it's simply untrue. "I want to dispel the notion, once and for all, that most victims wanted their cases sealed," says Bencomo. "If anything, we wanted full disclosure of who the perpetrators were so they couldn't commit such heinous crimes again."

Father Thomas Doyle, who has testified at hundreds of sex abuse cases involving the church, also says the Church needs to come clean. "It's outlandish that they're stonewalling you," he told Gambit Weekly. "That's why they're in the trouble they're in. They're trying to hide behind their position and they forget that they're not the church; the people are the church."

Former Church lawyer Ray Mouton, who gained notoriety when he represented Gauthe in the 1980s, has even stronger words about the church's claims. "The archdiocese is now going to protect victims from the police who they were either unable or unwilling to protect from their own priests?" he asks sardonically. "I don't think victims need a witness protection program under the cover of the Catholic Church."

The Archdiocese of New Orleans encompasses eight civil parishes and counts 488,000 members -- more than one-third of the total population for the area. At any given time, more than 220 diocesan priests serve in 142 parishes. Of these, the majority can be lauded for their service.

Others, such as the Revs. Charles G. Coyle, Dino Cinel, Bernard Schmaltz and Robert Melancon, have stood accused of crimes of abuse.

Cinel, Schmaltz and Melancon were all prosecuted criminally. But given the church's silence, the guilt of others can only be quantified by the millions of dollars in settlements the archdiocese has paid out in the last 20 years -- up to $25 million, according to many estimates.

Some of those millions, say plaintiffs' lawyers, came not from insurance companies under contract with the archdiocese, but from the coins and dollar bills plopped daily into the collection plates at masses across the metro area.

Over the last 20 years, by what insiders say are conservative estimates, more than two dozen priests who served the New Orleans archdiocese have been accused of molesting minors. At least seven have been the subject of lawsuits; three priests were criminally prosecuted, one was convicted of child rape:

· On April 4, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes suspended Coyle because of previous allegations of sexual molestation in Massachusetts. The archdiocese announced the action more than two weeks later, as news of Coyle's alleged abuse became public.

· In 1996, Melancon was convicted of child rape. The priest repeatedly abused a 12-year-old altar boy while serving at St. Genevieve Church in Thibodeaux. Melancon also allegedly molested an 8-year-old boy at Annunziata Church in Houma. In a civil hearing related to the 1996 conviction, a police detective testified that Melancon had been accused of molesting a boy at St. Genevieve in the 1970s, when the church was part of the New Orleans Diocese. Melancon is serving a life sentence.

· In 1993, Schmaltz was accused of raping a New Orleans boy in the mid-1970s, while the priest served at St. Clement of Rome Church in Metairie. A judge decided the charges were too old to prosecute. Gambit Weekly could not confirm Schmaltz's current location.

· In 1991, Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. pursued -- halfheartedly, some say -- criminal charges against Cinel, who had videotaped himself having sex with vagrant boys in the rectory. Cinel was later indicted, and then acquitted on charges of possession of child pornography. He lives in New Orleans, no longer a priest.

Bencomo, who says he has handled approximately a dozen lawsuits against the Archdiocese of New Orleans, believes the public paper trail is just a hint of the total problem. "The real numbers are only known to the church, its lawyers, and possibly its insurers," says Bencomo, referring to the alleged Church practice of cutting checks to victims' families before an insurance company gets involved.

Archdiocese spokesman Maestri declined to discuss how much the church had paid out to victims in the last 20 years. When asked if he thought parishioners had the right to know how much of their money has been spent on settling lawsuits and counseling for priests, Maestri said: "I don't know that. It's not something that I want to speculate on."

Mouton, who in 1985 co-authored with Doyle what has come to be known globally as "The Manual" -- a 100-page tome that was to be the church's "how-to" book on dealing with priestly sex abuse -- says the civil suits suggest widespread pedophilia among priests in any diocese.

"If you're a bishop or you're a diocesan lawyer, you're not going to pay me for the abuse of my son unless you believe there's enough credible evidence it exists," Mouton says. "You're not going to just cut me a check for $600,000.

"If there is enough evidence of criminal conduct for the church to pay out any sum of money whatsoever to a victim ... then obviously there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation by police and prosecutorial authorities," says Mouton.

Over the last 20 years, few legislative changes affecting victims of abuse have occurred. In 22 states and the District of Columbia, clergy are still not required to report certain complaints of sexual abuse.

Under Louisiana law, priests are treated as social service workers. If they learn of a suspected abuse through counseling they must report it, but if word of a suspected abuse surfaces in confessionals or through hearsay -- which priests say is most often the case -- clergy are not required to report.

Thus, in most instances, state law still exempts clergy from the mandatory reporting law, meaning bishops and cardinals who may learn of priestly abuses are not legally obligated to report them. That law remains in place today, despite several known cases, including Gauthe, in which church leaders failed to report allegations of sexual abuse of which they were proven to have had knowledge.

But in some instances Louisiana law is more kind to victims of sexual abuse than it was previously. Twenty years ago, victims had one year to seek civil redress under the state's statute of limitations. Today, a child who is abused has up to 10 years after reaching age 18 to bring legal action. The penalty for failing to report child abuse remains a misdemeanor in Louisiana, punishable by a fine of $500 and six months in jail.

Bencomo says the reporting laws and statutes of limitations need to better reflect the problems inherent in sexual abuse. "I think in these types of cases where the victims suffer in silence and are psychologically scarred for life, it should be extended until they are able, psychologically, to come forward."

Church critics say creating an independent investigative body would put most parishioners at ease. The Independent Review Board in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, as it's become known in recent weeks, is headed by former state attorney general William Guste and composed of lay people such as psychologists, social service workers, community leaders and physicians, according to diocesan officials.

But the value of such a board is meaningless, say lawyers, when someone else decides what claims are credible -- as the local archdiocese has said it would do. "I think there has to be some discernment between crackpots and the ones that aren't, but basically if it's an allegation of a crime, of course it has to go to the [district attorney]," says Doyle.

Maestri says "the appropriate officials of the archdiocese" would determine which cases were "credible," and forward those cases to the board. He declined to say what criteria would be used to determine the credibility of an allegation.

One diocesan source says Archbishop Alfred Hughes has final say on what cases get to the board and perhaps beyond the board to the district attorney. When he heard of Hughes' veto power, St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain Jr. wrote the archbishop demanding he leave such investigations up to law enforcement personnel.

"Clearly, I would demand that investigations of any and all criminal allegations be handled by the appropriate law enforcement authority," wrote Strain, who identified himself in the letter as a practicing Catholic.

Bencomo says leaving the decision to an untrained anonymous person will do little to restore parishioners' faith that the church's upper hierarchy is looking out for victims, not priests.

"I think it is absolutely imperative that the 'unnamed diocesan officials' have the proper training and background to be able to sift through the wheat and the chaff in order to bring a credible allegation to the board," says Bencomo. "Without knowing not only who, but what the expertise of the unnamed diocesan officials is, it's troublesome to think that all of a sudden the magic wand has been waved and that these individuals who could not or did not in the past ferret out pedophile priests can and will do so overnight."

Nationally, several dioceses have opened their records to district attorneys -- some willingly, others through a court order.

Since it became public in January that Geoghan is accused of molesting more than 130 children, several district attorneys from across the country have subpoenaed diocesan files regarding sexual abuse complaints. District attorneys for New York, Boston, Los Angeles, West Palm Beach, Fla., and St. Louis have done so.

In St. Louis and other cities, district attorneys have already convened grand juries to hear evidence uncovered by investigators.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., who met recently with archdiocesan representatives, stands by an earlier statement to The Times-Picayune in which he said, "Any evidence of a crime ought to be disclosed at any time." Connick stopped short, though, of suggesting a far-reaching subpoena was in the offing.

"In a majority of our cases, the investigative agency (police or sheriff's department) receives the complaint," says First Assistant District Attorney Tim McElroy. "What we've established as a protocol is that all the (priest sex abuse) complaints be directed to the New Orleans Police Department."

Any such cases that could result in life imprisonment would go to the grand jury, McElroy says. Other cases with lesser sentences would be reviewed by the district attorney, who would then make a decision as to whether or not to file charges.

"We would look at this on a case-by-case basis to see whether the offense is punishable by life imprisonment," McElroy says.

J. Minos Simon, the bombastic attorney who won the first of several large abuse-based lawsuits against the Lafayette Diocese during the Gauthe era, says district attorneys -- when there's proof of past cover-ups -- should subpoena all of the church's secret files. He says that a civil settlement, on its face, is "reasonable cause" to believe a criminal act may have occurred.

"It's the duty of each bishop to remove any priest who doesn't have the moral strength to honor his vows to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ," Simon says. "But likewise it's a duty of the district attorney to investigate any potential claim of sexual molestation and not just to sit back and wait for the church to come to him and give you the information. The district attorney has the power to subpoena records, to subpoena people to determine whether a crime has been committed. If the district attorney said he's waiting for the church to do that because he trusts them to do so, that's an alarming situation in view of the fact that officials of the church made every effort to keep this out of the public eye."

Bencomo says convening a grand jury to investigate cases brought to the district attorney's attention would be wise. "I would prefer to see a grand jury impaneled to look into the allegations of wrongdoing and abuse than to just have a single [assistant district attorney] make a decision on whether or not an organization, be it the Archdiocese of New Orleans or any other organization, should ultimately be indicted."

Critics say the Church should be more forthcoming regarding the costs of settlements, legal fees, counseling for victims and treatment for priests. But Maestri declined to say how many out-of-court and sealed in-court settlements the church has resolved, or the value of those settlements. Doing so would violate the confidentiality agreements signed by both parties, he says.

Several attorneys have told Gambit Weekly that talking generally about settlement statistics and monetary amounts would not violate those agreements.

Former Church lawyer Mouton says parishioners have a right to know how much of their money is being spent to treat pedophiles and their victims. "The Diocese, more than any organization, is in a position of trust and has a fiduciary responsibility, financially to its parishioners and the public. It is incumbent upon them to release all of the financials," he says.

Most critics agree that making public the policies and procedures that the diocese has in place to prevent and identify such abuses and offering an accurate accounting of internally documented abuses would go a long way toward what's needed to restore the faith of disaffected Catholics. Says lawyer Bencomo, "I think all disclosure is good."

When pressed, Maestri repeated his refusal to discuss any sum of money -- or say anything other than repeat the Church's general policy. "I think we've reached the end of the line because I don't think I can satisfy you," he says. "I think what I need to do is say I want to stand by my initial statement that I made."


The Questions The following questions were submitted to Fr. William Maestri on April 19, 2002. Maestri, acting as the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, declined to provide specific answers. Previously the archdiocese has released some details about the independent committee, including the names of members.
  1. What kind of psychological testing, criminal background checks and other screening processes are used to weed out potential or past molesters?
  2. In the last 20 years, how many priests have been accused of molesting children?
  3. During that time, how many were found by the church to have been guilty of those accusations?
  4. During that time, how many priests have been removed from the diocese for acknowledging their offenses?
  5. During that time, how often has the church’s review board met to investigate allegations of sexual abuse?
  6. When a family accuses a priest of molesting a child, what happens next? Tell us about the investigative process.
  7. How many out-of-court and sealed court settlements have been forged?
  8. How much, if any of that, came directly from parishioners’ pockets, not insurance companies?
  9. How many millions of dollars in settlements have been paid out?
  10. Would the church be willing to turn over its secret file of allegations to the district attorney’s office?
  11. Tell us in detail about the diocese’s independent committee to investigate allegations of abuse.
  12. How often has it met?
  13. What kind of people is it composed of?
  14. Are there any priests in the diocese now who have been convicted of sex crimes?
  15. Any who are currently under investigation?
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