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Archbishop Hughes, Priests Tackle Scandal

12 New Orleans priests under scrutiny: 2 to be removed from duty, other 10 inactive


05/17/02 - By Bruce Nolan, The Times-Picayune

While Archbishop Alfred Hughes told a closed meeting of hundreds of New Orleans priests to take heart in the face of the most demoralizing crisis ever to strike the American Catholic Church, his spokesman told the city Thursday a review the careers of more than 1,000 clergymen found that 12 may have sexually abused children in the past 50 years.

Two of those 12 work now and will be relieved of duty soon, said the Rev. William Maestri, who declined to provide their names.

The other 10, also unnamed, are retired, inactive or on restricted duty so "there's no danger of children coming in contact with these particular individuals," he said. They, too, will soon be prohibited from saying Mass and performing the sacraments where that applies, he said.

Maestri said he would not identify the two priests about to be relieved of duty because certain arrangements have yet to be made. In one case, parishioners will be told this weekend, he said.

Maestri also disclosed for the first time that the archdiocese has paid about $420,000 for therapy for alleged abuse victims since about 1980.

Church records indicate the archdiocese and its insurers also have paid about $500,000 in the same period to settle damage claims from lawsuits brought against the church, he said.

All the disclosures were the first of their kind for an archdiocese that closely guards its administrative and financial workings.

The package of disclosures came as the archdiocese unveiled the results of a monthslong review of sex-abuse complaints by an 11-member board of laypeople led by former state Attorney General William Guste.

The review disclosed that in more than half of the cases presented to it -- 12 out of 20 complaints -- the laypeople urged sterner action than that taken by earlier archbishops.

Hughes' willingness to follow up shows "a growing awareness" of the weight of the scandal, Maestri said.

Archbishop, priests meet

While Maestri briefed a news conference, Hughes and former Archbishops Francis Schulte and Philip Hannan assembled with about 300 priests in a nearby room at Notre Dame Seminary.

There Hughes disclosed the Guste report's findings to them, "affirmed their solidarity in the priesthood, told them the importance of their common work together . . . and how serious is this scandal that has touched the church," Maestri said.

Maestri also said Hughes will:

-- Establish a sexual abuse hotline in the first week of June staffed by professionals to gather complaints against priests or other archdiocesan employees;

-- Publish a letter to be read this weekend to all local Catholic congregations describing the report's findings, as well as a lengthier pastoral letter next week in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Clarion Herald;

-- Declare a week of prayer for "forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal and concern for priests and victims" starting the first Sunday in June.

Taken together, the initiatives represent the archdiocese's long-awaited local response to national revelations that some Catholic priests abused children for years and frequently were shuttled among parishes by bishops who thought medical treatment could cure them of their disorders.

Parishioners rarely were informed of a problem priest's past, nor were civil authorities usually notified even when priests admitted their misconduct.

Hughes issues 3rd apology

Maestri's summation of the Guste report began with a written apology by Hughes, his third since the scandal broke in January, just days after he became archbishop of New Orleans.

"I apologize for the actions, my own and others, in returning offending priests to parish ministry," Hughes wrote. "We failed to protect the innocents among us, our children. I ask your forgiveness."

The church now understands that such transfers were "a terrible wrong that should never have been done," Maestri said. And while the church formerly routinely shielded those accused from scrutiny by local law enforcement officials, "we have come to the recognition that investigating is not the sole activity of the church," he said.

Nationally, reviews such as the one Hughes commissioned have become common in dioceses as bishops have sought to recapture public confidence in their management. A count by the Associated Press in late April found that 177 priests had been suspended nationally as a result of such reviews.

In many cases, dioceses automatically shared all old complaints with local law enforcement as a further gesture of openness.

Maestri said church authorities here have begun contacting people who made complaints against the 12 priests to remind them they may take their cases to police.

"If victims give us permission and relieve us of any confidential understanding that they have, then we will be contacting civil authorities," he said.

More than 1,000 careers

The long review of personnel files, first announced in February, involved the careers of about 600 diocesan priests, 220 permanent deacons, almost 200 priests from religious orders now at work in the archdiocese, as well as several hundred religious order priests who served part of their careers outside of New Orleans.

Months ago, Hughes asked the leaders of religious orders with priests in New Orleans to tell him about any complaints of alleged sexual abuse by those men. He relied on those reports in recent weeks to suspend three priests -- the Rev. Charles Coyle, a Jesuit; the Rev. C. Richard Nowery, a Holy Cross priest; and the Rev. Joseph F. Pellettieri, a Redemptorist -- on allegations that developed outside of New Orleans.

Hughes also said in March that church officials would forward all "credible" complaints in local priests' files to the Guste commission for inspection. But Maestri on Thursday said the commission got every complaint in every file -- 20 in all -- apparently without any filtering.

Of the 20, Maestri said, the independent review panel found:

-- Six were not credible.

-- Two "do not seem credible," with investigations continuing.

-- Two "seem credible," with investigations continuing.

-- Ten, involving eight priests and two deacons, are considered credible.

Maestri said the 10 men in the last category, all with limited public contact, are being stripped of their duties if that has not already happened. Among those, presumably, is Monsignor John C. Sax, who Wednesday admitted molesting a child for years at St. Peter Church in Reserve, and who now does limited ministry at a retirement home for priests in Marrero.

Victims' groups often have urged publication of names of known abusers, in part to signal their victims still in hiding to come forward to seek healing.

While recognizing that argument, the archdiocese's position is "that there's nothing per se to be gained in releasing these names," especially because the men no longer have contact with children, Maestri said.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at bnolan@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3344.

© The Times-Picayune.


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