How Much Did the Saints Help the Catholic Church on Its Sex Abuse Crisis? More Than They Admitted
Kevin Bourgeois’s phone was ringing. It was a Wednesday in January, three weeks after the Saints’ season had ended, and he was standing in the parking lot outside the team’s headquarters in Metairie, La., wearing a black-and-gold Taysom Hill jersey. Around him, a small group was assembling: One man sported a Drew Brees jersey, another that of LSU’s Joe Burrow.
Bourgeois recognized the number calling. The 53-year-old New Orleans native has been a Saints season-ticket holder for a decade, with seats in a row of the Superdome’s terrace level where he can stand the whole game without blocking anyone. Usually, when he sees the team’s switchboard pop up on his phone, it’s a sales rep asking about renewing his seats. But he knew that wasn’t the reason for this call: The Saints’ top legal counsel wanted a word.
Five days earlier, on Jan. 24, the Associated Press had published a story revealing that the team had performed public relations work for the Archdiocese of New Orleans related to its spiraling sexual abuse crisis. The news sent shockwaves across the deeply Catholic city, which has been rocked over the last two years by ongoing revelations of abuse by clergy members and Church employees.
Now the Saints, the city’s other great devotion, had come to the Church’s aid. A civil suit filed against the archdiocese by a former altar boy in October 2018 had uncovered hundreds of emails that allegedly show executives from the Catholic-named NFL team working with local Church officials on the crisis. Most of those emails are confidential—under seal and accessible for reading by only the lawyers involved—but some that have become public clearly show a Saints executive advising the Church on PR strategy.
Team owner Gayle Benson—known for her close ties to the Church and, in particular, to New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond—has acknowledged that her team provided PR help. But as the Saints’ season ended with a playoff loss, its legal team fought in court to keep the emails under seal, raising questions over whether the Saints were hiding something. For now, that legal battle is on pause: The local archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in early May, freezing all its civil proceedings. The team declined to comment on the emails, citing a judge’s instructions.
Bourgeois and a handful of other men had gathered at the practice facility to demand transparency. They are Saints fans—and also local leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Bourgeois was a teen attending a New Orleans prep school for students interested in the priesthood in the 1980s when he says his choir director, a priest named Carl Davidson, molested him during sleepovers at Notre Dame Seminary. (Davidson died in 2007; Bourgeois settled a claim with the Church in 2019.)
Vicky Neumeyer, the Saints’ general counsel, had already called Bourgeois a few hours earlier. She asked to meet for coffee, he says, which he took as an effort to head off the demonstration, and he turned her down. Now, on the phone, she wanted Bourgeois to meet her inside. He put down his AYMOND MUST GO! sign—he says the security guards told him he couldn’t take it in—and walked into the lobby. Neumeyer met him, carrying a stack of press releases for the reporters gathered outside.
“She was scolding me for being there and questioning what we were doing,” Bourgeois recalls. “I said, ‘We’re serious about this. If the Saints had involvement in this, we have a right to know. And there’s a lot of people in the public, in this city, that are livid that your organization weighed in on pedophile priests.’
“She said, ‘Well, I am just disappointed.’ Then as I was leaving, she goes, ‘Behave out there.’ ”
The Saints disputed Bourgeois’s characterization of the exchange, describing it as “cordial,” a lawyer for the team wrote to Sports Illustrated. “Saints personnel did not scold anyone or do anything to stop the gathering,” the statement read.
Nevertheless, Bourgeois was appalled. The press release Neumeyer gave him only made him feel worse: In the first line, the Saints described themselves as “an organization recognized for unity and healing,” the identity it proudly forged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The release then reiterated the Saints’ previous public account of “minimal” involvement with the Church’s scandal: The team said it was contacted by the archdiocese for PR help specific to managing its release to the public of a list of 57 “credibly accused” clergy in November 2018. The Church billed this list as a decisive public airing, one that would include names dating back decades. The list could affect survivors’ ability to seek settlements from the Church and allow them to feel a measure of justice. The Saints have consistently said that they advised the Church to be “fully transparent,” never disclosing any work on the abuse crisis beyond their assistance in the weeks leading up to the list’s publication.
But an SI review of case files and public records suggests that the team was significantly more involved in the archdiocese’s response to the sexual abuse crisis than it had acknowledged. When questioned by SI, the Saints conceded that a top executive had advised the Church on PR months before the release of the list, apparently shifting the timeline the team has promoted since January. A lawyer for the team said that, in the summer before the list’s release, Saints senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel advised Archbishop Aymond on general press strategy related to the abuse crisis.
“Mr. Bensel did receive a call from the Archbishop during the summer asking Mr. Bensel for his opinion on the best way to handle the press and the negative series of media articles that were being written,” James Gulotta, a lawyer for the Saints, wrote in an email. “Mr. Bensel suggested that the Archbish...