Vatican Orders Trial for 3 N.O. Priests
Legal Action Private; 4th Case Gets Hearing
By Martha Carr
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
October 6, 2004
The Vatican has ordered church trials in the cases of three New Orleans priests accused of sexually abusing minors and said that Archbishop Alfred Hughes will handle a fourth case administratively, an archdiocese spokesman said Tuesday.
The Rev. William Maestri refused to name the priests who will be tried, claiming that disclosure could compromise the rights of the accused and the complainants.
However, he said an administrative hearing will be held in the case of the Rev. Pat Sanders, a popular Belle Chasse pastor who is accused of abusing two 16-year-olds during a 1993 outing to Biloxi, Miss.
The trials will be the first such legal proceedings to be held in New Orleans since priest sex-abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church in 2002. But the public may never know the final disposition of the landmark proceedings.
Church trials are conducted in private, Maestri said. Archdiocesan officials have the final say on disclosing tribunal rulings to the public.
"I think that would be handled on a case-by-case basis depending upon the judgment of the Archdiocese on the need to know," Maestri said.
Unlike civil trials, church trials are held in secret before a panel of three to five canon lawyers, whose job it is to render a judgment. Parties can appeal the court's rulings to a second court of review, and then to Rome, Maestri said.
The rulings in the three sex-abuse trials would not be disclosed until the appeals process is exhausted, Maestri said. But church officials may keep them under wraps.
That upsets Lyn Hayward Taylor, who has vigorously fought for transparency in abuse cases as founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"It's the same culture of secrecy that has kept this scandal and this horror alive," she said. "They are going to decide whether one of their own is guilty . . . of what is considered a crime and in some cases is punishable by the death penalty. They just don't get it. They don't believe they have to be subjected to the same kind of public scrutiny that the rest of the world has."
In the three cases set for trial, it is likely the charges -- at least in some instances -- are too old for criminal prosecution. When abuse allegations surface years after the fact, which happens often in church cases, prosecutors are unable to bring charges because of statutes of limitations.
The New Orleans archdiocese has said two deacons and eight diocesan priests have been credibly accused since 1950. They have never identified some; others were named after the archdiocese adopted new procedures relating to sex abuse charges.
Among those accused in cases with no known resolution are the Rev. Carl Davidson, a musician and accompanist for the St. Louis Cathedral boy choir; the Rev. Michael Fraser, who was pastor of Our Lady of Visitation Parish until he was relieved of ministry in January; and the Rev. Bernard Schmaltz, who retired from the priesthood in 1993 and lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Davidson has been unavailable for comment since his name surfaced. Fraser and Schmaltz have denied the accusations. Schmaltz has sued the church for defamation for naming him in connection with a new sex abuse allegation earlier this year.
The Revs. Patrick Keane and John Sax also were identified and both have admitted to molesting young people. Only Sax remains a priest, living in an undisclosed location without priestly duties, according to the archdiocese.
Sanders was stripped of his priestly duties in April after two men accused him of sexually abusing them while he was serving as assistant to the pastor at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in eastern New Orleans.
Sanders is technically not charged with abuse of a minor because church law at the time placed the age of majority at 16, and both the youths who charged him were older than that at the time of the incident, Maestri said. The church shortly thereafter raised the age of majority to 18.
That doesn't necessarily mean Sanders will not face sanctions, Maestri said. Hughes has created a 3-person panel, which includes a social worker, a sex abuse expert and canon lawyer from outside the archdiocese, to review the facts of the case. The panel's recommendation will then be forwarded to an 18-member advisory board that has been active in reviewing sex abuse allegations. That board will make a recommendation to Hughes, who will have the final word.
Action could range from reinstatement to a permanent removal of Sanders from all priestly duties, Maestri said.
Sanders was ordained in 1990 and served first at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans. In 1993, he moved to Resurrection and in 1995 to St. Angela Merici in Metairie. He became the pastor of St. Peter Church in Reserve in 1997, and four years later was transferred to Belle Chasse, Maestri said.
In addition to his duties at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Sanders was the chief of the Algiers-Plaquemines deanery, giving him some supervisory duties over a cluster of West Bank parishes, Maestri said. He also served for a brief, undisclosed period as temporary administrator at St. Thomas Parish in Pointe a la Hache.
Sanders has kept a low profile since he was removed from duties earlier this year. Last week, however, he was among the customers in a Hibernia National Bank in Algiers when several armed robbers entered. He was shot and slightly wounded. Maestri said Sanders was treated at local hospital and is recovering well.
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