|Spotlight on Pope Evokes Local Priest Scandals
By John Desantis
March 30, 2010
THIBODAUX — As the world follows allegations that the pope ignored alarms concerning priests accused of sex abuse, two cases with local ties continue creeping through the courts.
Attorneys representing accusers in the local cases say their clients met a “conspiracy of silence” similar to allegations now leveled against Pope Benedict XVI and other high-ranking church officials concerning cases in Germany, Ireland and the U.S.
“Failure to take appropriate action against these priests, failure to weed them out of the ministry, it’s all part of that conspiracy,” said Roger Stetter, one of the attorneys for 24-year-old Jared Ribardi, who accuses the Rev. Etienne LeBlanc, former pastor of Annunziata Catholic Church in Houma, of molesting him.
“We will be able to show there were lots of problems with this guy and that the diocese has known about him for years,” Stetter said.
Another suit, filed in Vermillion Parish six years ago, alleges Houma-Thibodaux Diocese Bishop Sam Jacobs failed to warn a family to keep their son away from John Andries, a priest with “a propensity to sexually molest and/or abuse youngsters.”
Jacobs was bishop of the Alexandria Diocese when the 16-year-old was molested by Andries, who was later convicted of the crime. Andries is also named in the suit.
Louis Aguirre, spokesman for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, declined to answer questions about either case.
Both “are still under litigation, and it is diocesan policy to refrain from commenting until the matters are resolved,” Aguirre said in a statement issued Friday.
The European scandals focusing attention on the pope include a letter issued last week to Irish Catholics in which Benedict apologized but did not discipline church leaders who covered up decades of systemic sexual abuse, fueling anger in that country.
But Ireland is only one problem.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, while an archbishop of Munich and Freising, the future pope approved the transfer of a priest who had sexually abused boys. The priest underwent psychiatric treatment and was quickly returned to work with children.
A subordinate took responsibility for the decision, although internal church documents show that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, got a memo informing him of the transfer.
In 1998, top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, according to internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from lawyers suing church officials. The decision came after the priest appealed to Ratzinger for leniency.
The Vatican has said the abuse dated back decades and the priest’s age and ill health were reason enough to allow him to remain a member of the clergy.
The cases filed in Vermillion and Terrebonne are not directly connected to the Vatican’s current troubles. But lawyers say they see them as bitter fruits of a still-secretive church hierarchy’s tree.
The Vermillion case was filed by Danny and Debbie Brown, a now-divorced couple whose son was victimized in 2001.
Court records and interviews indicate they befriended John Andries in 1996 while he was still a deacon. What they didn’t know was that the priest was suspended after church officials — including Jacobs — learned of abuse allegations made in 1998 by a Natchitoches boy.
Andries was sent to the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., where priests receive psychiatric treatment and other counseling, but that detail of the sabbatical was never shared with the family.
Andries returned to the ministry on the advice of St. Luke’s, according to an attorney for Jacobs, with orders not to associate with children except when supervised. Court papers say Andries took bus trips with a school football team. He also was a frequent dinner guest at the Brown home.
On June 6, 2001, Andries was stayed the night at the Brown’s home, sleeping in a bunk bed in their son’s room. The teen told his parents the next morning that the priest had molested him.
An incredulous Danny Brown called Jacobs directly, and during strenuous questioning was told of Andries’ past, he said.. The Browns allege that Jacobs advised them against calling police and told them they should think of the church.
The Browns did call police, and Andries was eventually convicted of molestation, serving two years. According to sexual-offender records, he now works for a Vermillion Parish construction company.
Attorneys contend Jacobs didn’t try to talk the Browns out of reporting the abuse.
Jacobs will not discuss the case. Andries did not return Courier calls.
The lawsuit is still pending.
Attorney Anthony Fontana, who represents the Browns, said reasons for the delay include difficulty with scheduling depositions. Andries’ victim is in the military and has served four tours in Iraq.
Fontana said his clients’ allegations against Jacobs are far worse than the complaints emerging against the pope.
“It blows my mind,” Fontana said, adding that his investigation reveals Jacobs had knowledge that Andries was problematic even before his ordination. Any knowledge Jacobs had, Fontana said, was not screened through subordinates.
If Jacobs indeed tried to thwart the Browns from notifying police, it is difficult to see how he could appropriately deal with allegations of abuse in a different case, said Stetter, who represents Jared Ribardi in the civil suit filed in Terrebonne.
Ribardi is currently imprisoned at the Rivers Correctional Facility in Ferriday on a charge of failure to register as a sex offender, stemming from a 2005 molestation conviction. The victim in that case was the daughter of a woman he was involved with.
Ribardi denies he molested the girl, though he pleaded guilty to the charge.
The molestation conviction is among a slew problems Ribardi has been beset with for years, a phenomenon his lawyers say is the direct result of the abuse he suffered as a child.
According to court papers and a complaint filed with Morgan City Police, Ribardi was seeking to become an altar boy at Holy Cross Church when Etienne LeBlanc was its pastor, roughly 14 years ago.
The court papers say LeBlanc told the then 9-year-old boy that he could become an altar boy in exchange for oral sex, which allegedly immediately ensued.
The sexual encounters continued until he was about 14, Ribardi has said and court papers say.
Attorneys representing Ribardi in the civil suit say it’s proven nearly impossible at times to get most requested information from the diocese’s attorneys without a judge’s intervention. Court papers back up those claims.
They have asked for correspondence between the diocese and the center where LeBlanc was treated — the same one attended by Andries. Diocese attorneys have declined to provide those documents because the criminal investigation remains unresolved.
District Judge Timothy Ellender, who is hearing the case, ordered some documents to be turned over, but has agreed with defense attorneys request that only he and Ribardi’s attorneys will be allowed to view them.
“The coverup by the Vatican, including the pope, of clergy abuse with children — this is part of that whole larger problem,” Stetter said. “There is an edict from the Vatican issued in 1961 reaffirming that any allegations should be kept highly secret and that has been determined as meaning they would not report it to anybody. Do anything to cover it up and keep it a secret.”
Stetter said his team plans to take sworn depositions from LeBlanc and former Bishop Michael Jarrell, now with the Lafayette Diocese. He will attempt to make a case that the diocese had ample knowledge of problems involving LeBlanc, including the time he served as a priest at the Aquinas Center of Nicholls State University.
“We have information that LeBlanc sexually molested a young man at Nicholls State who tragically ended his life in 1989, leaving behind a widow,” Stetter said.
Responses received from diocesan attorneys so far, he said, lead them to believe LeBlanc will invoke his fifth-amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
A call to LeBlanc’s attorney was not immediately returned.
Stetter also said he wants to know how much of the case diocesan officials have discussed with the Morgan City Police Department.
Detectives there acknowledge a complaint is on file, but they also say they want to talk with three young men Ribardi alleges were also abused by LeBlanc. Ribardi has refused to provide those names to The Courier, citing a pact of secrecy they agreed to among themselves.
Stetter said he is displeased with the police investigation and says St. March prosecutors should order a grand-jury investigation.
“If the police were in collusion with the church, then they are in collusion to protect child molesters,” he said. “If they are not, then why haven’t they opened a formal investigation. Why hasn’t a grand jury been impaneled?”
Holy Cross parishioners at the church during LeBlanc’s tenure continue to believe in his innocence.
In random telephone interviews conducted last week, several said they miss LeBlanc, a man they say is incapable of committing the things he’s accused of doing.
The New York Times contributed to this report. Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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