Priest Suspected of Preying on Louisiana's Deaf Argues End of Archdiocesan Support Is "Draconian"
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
May 14, 2020
In a remarkable letter filed in federal court Thursday, a priest suspected of molesting children while tending to the deaf reveals that he has continued receiving financial support from the Archdiocese of New Orleans since his 1980 removal from the ministry — and complains he’s on the brink of homelessness because the archdiocese’s recent bankruptcy filing put a stop to the payments.
The letter's author is Gerard Howell, who served at several New Orleans-area churches, established a center for the deaf in Baton Rouge, and was removed from the ministry 16 years after his ordination over what the missive characterizes as “serious mistakes in the past.”
Howell, 80, was not named in the archdiocese’s most recent listing of retired priests who are entitled to benefits such as a monthly pension, insurance coverage and archdiocese-owned housing. Nonetheless, Howell’s emailed letter notes that in 1995, then-Archbishop Francis Schulte “promised to fully provide” for him, citing a directive from the Congregation for the Clergy, an entity in Rome that oversees diocesan priests.
It is not clear whether Howell began receiving the benefits then, before or after.
In any event, Howell said he was devastated when current Archbishop Gregory Aymond informed him that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill this month ordered an immediate stop to payments for priests who had been credibly accused of child abuse. Grabill’s ruling came days after the archdiocese on May 1 requested Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections, citing the financial fallout of numerous clergy-abuse lawsuits as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
Howell’s letter, dated Monday, called that ruling “draconian” because it didn’t allow for a grace period. And he claimed it has left him “days away from having to … live in a homeless shelter.”
“As things stand right now, I have no place to go and can’t pay bills for rent, reimbursement for medical bills, electrical, TV and phone bills which totals as of now $2,179,” Howell wrote in a portion of the letter that excerpts a message he sent to Aymond. “This doesn’t (include) medical and car insurance.”
Referring to unspecified “serious health problems,” Howell asked Aymond to “find a morally fair way to fulfill” the ethical — and legal — obligation the archdiocese had previously cited to make whole all retired priests who paid into the clergy retirement fund, regardless of whether or not they’d been credibly accused.
Howell wrote that he had paid into that plan, and he requested both Grabill and Aymond to consider that.
Grabill tentatively set a hearing to reconsider her order halting payments to accused clergy abusers for 4 p.m. on May 20.
“You are the only one I can turn to,” Howell added in closing the section directed at Aymond. “I’ve made serious mistakes in the past. Thanks to the archdiocese which spent lots of money for me to heal and be where I am today. I know this is rough on you.”
Howell on Thursday said he was “not interested” in speaking to a reporter who contacted him at a South Dakota telephone number. His letter says he is too poor to hire an attorney to represent him.
The archdiocese said Thursday it could not comment on "civil or ecclesial matters."
Howell was included in the archdiocese's November 2018 list of clergymen who had faced credible allegations of child molestation. The list said the archdiocese first learned of at least one abuse claim against Howell in 1978, several years after he’d been appointed to direct the New Orleans deaf apostolate in 1967 and the same year he helped establish the St. Francis de Sales deaf center in Baton Rouge.
Citing his mastery of sign language and his helping deaf people gain employment, ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards and former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs were among Louisiana dignitaries who lavished Howell with praise. But at least two of his survivors — Darlene Austin and Shari Bernius — have spoken publicly about how, behind closed doors, Howell convinced children in the deaf community they were unlovable and sexually molested them.
WWL-TV first reported on the allegations against Howell — and similar ones against his brother and fellow priest, Rodney Howell — in 1992. Jerry Howell denied them at the time.
Rodney Howell, who died in 1993, was not an Archdiocese of New Orleans priest. He was a priest in Texas, and the dioceses of Lubbock and Amarillo included him in their credibly accused lists.
Other still-living clergymen on the roster of suspected child predators have been described as "retired" in other archdiocesan literature, including T. Gaspard Glasgow, Lawrence Hecker and Paul Calamari.