Lawyers in Clergy Abuse Lawsuit Seek Documents from Saints Executives
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
July 25, 2019
The lawyers for a man who alleges he was sexually abused by former Catholic deacon George Brignac decades ago have sent a subpoena to the New Orleans Saints for copies of any communications between club officials and the local archdiocese.
According to attorneys Richard Trahant and John Denenea, the move came after the discovery process turned up documents and emails which, they contend, showed at least one member of the Saints’ administration — longtime public relations chief Greg Bensel — was advising the archdiocese on how to publicly address local claims pertaining to the Catholic Church's ongoing clergy abuse crisis.
The lawsuit, filed in late October, alleges that the unidentified plaintiff is due damages because Brignac molested him when he was an altar boy at a local church in the late 1970s and because the Archdiocese of New Orleans failed to protect him. Brignac has denied wrongdoing, and the archdiocese has been litigating the claims.
At least some of the communications requested by the attorneys involved a Saints and National Football League email address belonging to Bensel, the plaintiffs said. That prompted the attorneys on Monday to also send a letter to the NFL’s offices in New York asking the league to preserve any potential evidence there or on its computer servers.
Bensel, who in his 23 years working with the Saints became a trusted adviser to longtime owner Tom Benson and his widow Gayle, declined comment on the letter to the NFL and the subpoena. Bensel and the Saints can challenge the requests in court.
An archdiocesan spokeswoman also declined to comment on the matter, citing a policy against discussing pending legal cases.
Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said he would expect the Saints to move to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it is unlikely to uncover admissible evidence related to the case.
Still, taken together, the subpoena and the NFL letter signal the willingness of the plaintiff’s attorneys to set their aim at some of the city’s most prominent institutions as they seek compensation for their client.
Though the plaintiff’s lawyers said they merely wish to better understand how the Saints organization may have been involved “with supporting the archdiocese on addressing sexual abuse claims and the media coverage surrounding these claims,” the letter and subpoena for now have pulled an organization belonging to one of New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s most influential friends — Gayle Benson — into a legal fracas.
Aymond and Benson, the owner of the Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans, speak openly about their friendship and the alliance between their organizations.
Gayle Benson is a devout Catholic who has made a number of million-dollar donations to church institutions. Aymond was a near-constant presence at her side before and during the March 2018 funeral of Tom Benson, from whom she inherited control of a billion-dollar business empire anchored by the Saints and Pelicans.
Two days after the subpoena was issued, Bensel’s Twitter account published a photo showing him, Benson and other members of the Saints and Pelicans organizations with Aymond.
“Special week for our … executives joining Mrs. Benson and Archbishop Aymond … in the Holy Land,” text above the photo read. “(Praying) for championship seasons as we start training camp this week.”
Besides messages, letters and emails, the subpoena seeks any other correspondence establishing whether Bensel had orders to advise the archdiocese on the abuse crisis.
Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ellen Hazeur held a preliminary hearing on the suit on Thursday, ruling that by Aug. 2 she would appoint a so-called special master to resolve discovery-related issues in the case, such as which documents can be made public and which should be kept confidential. Either side will have a week to register objections about her appointment, Hazeur said.
The plaintiff’s case is one of several where a victim has alleged abuse at the hands of a cleric decades ago and is demanding monetary damages from local Catholic officials. He has accused Brignac of having fondled his genitals and forced oral sex on him on various occasions from 1977 to 1982, when the plaintiff was between 8 and 13 years old and was an altar boy serving alongside Brignac.
Numerous other people over the years have leveled similar allegations of abuse against Brignac, who was removed from the ministry in 1988. He’s been criminally tried only once — in the 1970s, resulting in an acquittal.
On Nov. 2, Aymond included Brignac in a list of 57 New Orleans-area clergymen — mostly priests — who have been the target of child sexual abuse allegations deemed credible by the church. Four new names were recently added to the list.
A number of abuse-related lawsuits filed after that disclosure remain pending; others have been resolved through a private mediation process.