By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — The Archdiocese of New Orleans and Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond are pushing back against a newspaper’s investigative report claiming they mishandled several claims of clerical abuse.
The Guardian published an Aug. 8 investigative feature concluding that “the archbishop on six different occasions disregarded findings of credibility” for accused priests, allegedly overriding the archdiocesan review board, a consultative body required for each diocese or eparchy by the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” also known as the Dallas Charter.
“We adamantly deny the assertions made in The Guardian that allegations of sexual abuse were mishandled by Archbishop Aymond and the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” Sarah Comiskey McDonald, archdiocesan communications director, told OSV News in an Aug. 8 email.
“Each allegation is complex and unique. A finding of credibility by the Internal Review Board is not a determination of guilt in either canon law or civil law,” she said.
The Guardian based its findings on a 48-page memorandum, prepared by victims’ attorneys and submitted to law enforcement last year, summarizing crimes that were still viable for prosecution. The newspaper claimed the memo, a copy of which it had obtained, showed “the administrative actions outlined in it do not emulate the promises of full transparency” the church has made regarding its response to abuse claims.
According to The Guardian, the memo, which “has not led to any substantial action from authorities,” has remained confidential since it references documents pertaining to the archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy filing.
While admitting it had not independently reviewed all of the memo’s source documents and files, the newspaper said it was confident of the memo’s accuracy, based on extensive vetting of two cases cited in the memo.
Three of the priests named by The Guardian are now deceased: Father Paul Hart; Father Brian Highfill, who appears on the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ list of credibly accused priests; and Father Jerry Dabria, a claim against whom was settled without input from the review board, according to The Guardian.
Four priests listed in the article are retired: Father Joseph Benson, Father Luis Fernandez, Father Luis Henao and Father William O’Donnell. Following The Guardian’s report, Father O’Donnell told the newspaper he denied “any sexual impropriety.”
Father Fernandez told The Guardian that he was ordered by Archbishop Aymond to cease celebrating Mass publicly and wearing clerical garb. He denied any accusations of abuse and said he had recently been advised the archdiocese would end his retirement benefits as part of its bankruptcy filing.
Father Henao, who had been placed on leave in 2002 and then later reinstated, also has stopped receiving retirement benefits, according to his brother, who told The Guardian the priest is living in his native Colombia and has dementia. According to The Guardian, Father Henao was told to restrict his ministry to adults.
Claims against the priests named in the article range from inappropriate touching to rape. According to The Guardian:
— The review board considered three claims against Father Benson, ruling that two — which involved inappropriately touching the genitals of two adult men in the course of a blessing — were valid. A third accusation could not be assessed by the board since the claimant had committed suicide.
— Prior to Archbishop Aymond’s installation in 2009, the archdiocese had reviewed claims Father Fernandez had abused several students at a former Catholic high school for boys. The archdiocesan review board in place at the time found the claims credible and offered the victim unlimited therapy, but the archdiocese did not add the priest’s name to its public list. After the victim spoke to media in 2020, Archbishop Aymond forbade the retired Father Fernandez from publicly celebrating Mass.
— Under Archbishop Aymond, the archdiocesan review board had recommended that Father Henao, who had accumulated more complaints after his reinstatement, should not have any contact with children or adolescents. However, the priest has not appeared on the archdiocesan list of credibly accused priests.
— In 2016, the archdiocesan board reviewed claims that Father O’Donnell, who retired in 2009, had raped and molested two preteen boys, each over a period of two years. One of the victims claimed other priests were present and photographing his rape. Board members found the claims ranged from believable to probable and credible, and in 2017 Archbishop Aymond approved settlements of $120,000 and $100,000 to the two accusers. However, in May 2018, the archbishop, without mentioning the board finding or settlements, formally declared the allegation against Father O’Donnell had “no semblance of truth.”
— Father Paul Hart, who had admitted to molesting a 17-year-old girl earlier in his career, was judged by Archbishop Aymond to have “behaved immorally” but not abusively, since church law at the time specified the age of consent as 16 years old. Robie Robichaux, a canon lawyer who aided the archbishop in that decision, was later dismissed from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, due to sexual abuse allegations involving a teenage girl.
— Father Brian Highfill, a former military chaplain, was added to the archdiocesan list of credibly accused priests — “only after years of waffling,” said The Guardian — during which time he also faced a criminal investigation from the U.S. Air Force. He was suspended in 2018 when the brother of a victim, who had since committed suicide, presented written evidence the priest had groomed the child for a sexual relationship. More claims poured in after the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, and Father Highfill was added to the archdiocesan list in 2020. Shortly after, the now-Archdiocese of Las Vegas added Father Highfill to its list due to his time of priestly service there, for which there were no abuse complaints. The priest died in 2022 without facing criminal prosecution from the military over allegations of sexual assault.
— A claim against Father Jerry Dabria was settled for $87,500 without input from the review board, although the priest was named as a defendant in a sexual assault case brought in a sealed Louisiana state lawsuit.
According to The Guardian, “the memo’s authors contend that (Archbishop) Aymond’s handling of claims against O’Donnell, Benson, Henao, Hart, Fernandez, Highfill and Dabria … shows the disparate treatment he directed to suspected clergy predators and their accusers.”
The Archdiocese of New Orleans disputed that assertion, with McDonald telling OSV News in her Aug. 8 emailed statement, “Investigations are ongoing to allow for the acceptance of new information as we endeavor to determine the truth.”
She said 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 cases cited by The Guardian are instances where information came to light that called into question the facts presented to the Internal Review Board,” said McDonald, adding the newspaper article is “based on a legal memo written by attorneys and being used to disrupt and delay the (archdiocesan) bankruptcy proceedings and to publicly discredit Archbishop Aymond and the Church.”
She also provided OSV News with a copy of Archbishop Aymond’s Aug. 8 response to a list of questions submitted by The Guardian during its research for the article.
“I could provide a response to your specific questions, however discussing details of specific cases would neither be helpful nor in the spirit of the court’s orders,” Archbishop Aymond said in his statement to the newspaper.
“I do not act alone. I am now and have always been aided by a team of lay professionals in evaluating the credibility of accusations,” he said, adding, “In each instance, I can assure you that decisions were made and actions were taken based upon the information and in consultation with lay professionals and experts as well as church leadership.”
He noted, “As each situation developed, additional information became available that led to further actions or alternate decisions,” and cautioned against “(l)ooking at specific statements or actions out of the overall context of a case.”
“Each situation is complex and decisions were not made with a careless disregard for survivors nor a desire to protect the church and the priests,” said the archbishop.
“We will continue to learn from the past but I am more focused on the present and the future,” said Archbishop Aymond. “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.”
“My focus is bringing the bankruptcy proceedings to their conclusion so that the survivors can be fairly compensated,” he said. “I know that there is no amount of money that can bring healing to those who have been hurt. I only hope that my prayers and the pastoral support the survivors are able to receive will help them and bring them peace.”