|Police Might Look Closer at Allegations
By John DeSantis
July 12, 2011
A civil lawsuit filed by a man who says a now-retired priest sexually abused him when he was an altar boy could lead law-enforcement authorities to take a closer look at the allegations.
But while both police and an area prosecutor appear to have an interest in developing evidence in the case, each appears to be waiting for the other to give the green light.
St. Mary Parish officials said it is possible a private investigator's report concerning allegations against the Catholic priest, Etienne LeBlanc, could contain information relevant to the criminal complaint.
Jared Ribardi of Morgan City filed the police complaint in 2007. In it, he alleges that LeBlanc sexually abused him from 1991 to 1997, from the time Ribardi was 9 years old until he was 15.
LeBlanc was placed on administrative leave from his duties as pastor at Houma's Annunziata Church in 2007 after church officials became aware of Ribardi's complaint.
The Courier and the Daily Comet do not ordinarily identify alleged victims of sex crimes, But Ribardi, now 28, has requested that his name be made public.
An investigation was commissioned by Houma-Thibodaux Bishop Sam Jacobs in 2007, when Ribardi's accusations first surfaced. The investigative report is now at the center of a battle between attorneys for Ribardi and the diocese.
District Judge Timothy Ellender of Houma granted Ribardi's attorneys' request that the investigative report be made part of the court file. But attorneys for the diocese want to see that order overturned and will be filing their objections with an appeals court.
After Ribardi made his criminal complaint against LeBlanc, detectives were unable to interview LeBlanc, who was undergoing treatment and counseling for undisclosed problems out of state, Morgan City Police officials said earlier. LeBlanc now lives in a rented house in Gretna.
John Phillip Haney, district attorney for the 16th Judicial District, which encompasses Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes, has not launched a prosecution against LeBlanc. He cites a lack of corroborating evidence against LeBlanc as a chief reason for that.
Haney did acknowledge in an interview Monday, however, that he is not averse to Morgan City Police taking a look at what the diocese's private investigator might have determined, with an eye toward seeing if a prosecution could be successful.
“We have a duty to bring cases forward when there is evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt,” Haney said, adding that he also has a responsibility to avoid those cases where such evidence does not appear to exist.
Attempting to question LeBlanc or asking questions of the investigator who did the report for the diocese “would be within the proper scope of the Morgan City Police Department.”
Morgan City Police Chief Marc Folse said Monday that he is not familiar with details of the case or how much work detectives had done. He expressed interest in the fact that LeBlanc is now in Louisiana and can be approached by detectives.
It is not likely that he will cooperate with questions investigators might have, however.
During a deposition taken in 2009, LeBlanc refused to answer questions from one of Ribardi's attorneys more than 57 times, citing his right to remain silent under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment.
As with any criminal suspect, LeBlanc has the right not to answer questions from police.
“It would be for the district attorney to say he wanted to investigate,” Folse said. “If he got information that there was additional evidence he would contact us.”
Louis Aguirre, spokesman for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, has said that the diocese can have no comment because the civil case concerning the matter is in the courts.
LeBlanc has been unreachable for comment.
Roger Stetter of New Orleans, one of Ribardi's attorneys, said it is time for police and the prosecutor to get together and make a decision to handle the criminal complaint as they would any other.
Prosecution of a priest or anyone else accused of sexually abusing a child, Stetter said, should be a major priority for law enforcement. He said he hopes Haney and the police will make every effort to further investigate the criminal complaint.
“It sounds like they are playing hot potato and they obviously need to get on the same page,” Stetter said. “The civil case has uncovered evidence that should be of interest to the public prosecutor. These child-molestation cases are important. We don't want our children hurt by adults who don't know how to control their behavior. And it would appear to me that is what happened in this case.”
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reache at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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