Quest for Facts in Clergy Abuse Allegation Leaves Indelible Question Marks
By Kim Chatelain
November 27, 2018
Last week, I reached into the depths of a guest bedroom closet and retrieved a fancy white album containing photos of our wedding in 1984.
Naturally, I was somewhat amazed by how young both my wife and I looked in the photos. But what really struck me was the marriage license that was affixed to the back page of the album, which included the signature of the priest who married us - Father Louis LeBourgeois.
A few weeks earlier, I had interviewed a woman in California who reached out to me after reading stories I’d written about clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. She wanted to share her story in hopes it would help other survivors.
She claimed that it was LeBourgeois who had abused her in 1968, when she was just shy of five years old and living in River Ridge. After listening to LindaLee Stonebreaker’s story over the course of several telephone interviews, one thing became crystal clear in the mind of this lifelong Catholic - this was going to be one of the most difficult stories I would handle in my 40 years in journalism.
Although she had never gone public with her story, Stonebreaker said the recent spate of clergy abuse news accounts prompted her to speak out. I spent weeks trying to verify the story, with at least part of me hoping that my research would prove that the claim was at least partially false.
As it turned out, a preliminary investigation by the Archdiocese of New Orleans had resulted in the priest being confronted with the allegation shortly before his death in 2015. LeBourgeois “vehemently” denied it but died a short time later, both Stonebreaker and the archdiocese told me.
The Stonebreaker story was put on hold as other elements of the clergy abuse crisis were reported, including the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Nov. 2 release of clergy members “credibly accused” of abuse. LeBourgeois’ name was not on the list because he died before a review board could complete its investigation on the Stonebreaker allegation. Board approval is the final step in the archdiocese’s process to deem a complaint as “credible.”
Recently, Stonebreaker posted a short version of her story on Facebook, naming LeBourgeois as the priest who abused her 50 years ago in River Ridge. After much consultation with editors, it was decided to go forward with the story in part because the priest’s name had been publicly disclosed and we felt the need to provide some context and balance.
LeBourgeois was assigned to St. Matthew the Apostle Church in River Ridge when the alleged incident occurred with Stonebreaker. My wife’s family lived in River Ridge at the time and attended St. Matthew.
When it came time for us to walk down the aisle, we decided to do so at St. Matthew and recruited LeBourgeois, who had since moved on to another church parish, to officiate. At the time, my wife remembered him as a popular priest with a good sense of humor. We thought it would be appropriate for him to marry us and he happily did so.
I don’t remember much about what LeBourgeois said during the homily at the wedding Mass. I do, however, recall that when the cantor went on a little too long with the communion hymn, LeBourgeois began running his index finger across his throat. It was a clear indication that he felt it was time to stop singing and get on to the reception.
We kept track of LeBourgeois’ assignments over the years, learned that he had become a monsignor and were pleasantly surprised when he retired to the North Shore and began celebrating Masses at our parish church. Well into his 70s by this time, he was known for his brief, to-the-point homilies that were appreciated by many Mass-goers, especially those who didn’t want to miss the Saints’ noon kickoffs.
I was saddened by news of his death in 2015 and even more saddened by the account that Stonebreaker shared. The clergy abuse issue and the ensuing Catholic hierarchy coverup has cause immense pain for the victims. In reverberating through the Church, it has touched many other people who were not directly involved, leaving in its wake some indelible question marks.
As it grapples with clergy abuse, the Church needs to be transparent for the sake of survivors and for justice. That transparency, however, comes with side effects. It carries with it disenchantment for many Catholics who have trusted priests embroiled in what New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond has called the church’s now-exposed “family sin.”
I went looking for the album in hopes of finding a photo of LeBourgeois at our wedding. I found only the wedding license with his signature.
I suppose what I was really looking for were answers, answers that will never be found.