N.O. Vicar Put on Leave after Review of Sex Case
Accusations Involving Minor 'Credible', Archbishop Decides
By Gordon Russell
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
May 20, 2002
New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes has put the parochial vicar of a Bywater church on administrative leave after finding allegations that the priest engaged in sex with a minor "credible," a spokesman for Hughes said Sunday.
Effective today, the Rev. Luis E. Henao, 59, parochial vicar of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish, will not be allowed to say Mass or perform other sacraments, the Rev. William Maestri said.
Although the Archdiocese of New Orleans has determined the allegation against Henao to be believable, that does not imply he is guilty, Maestri said.
Henao's case is one of 12 allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests or deacons that a special review board set up recently by the archdiocese deemed credible. The board reviewed 50 years of clergy files as a local response to a growing national furor over cases of molestation of youths by Catholic priests.
Ten of the 12 priests flagged by the review board were already retired, inactive or on restricted duty when the board's findings were announced last week. Those priests, whom the archdiocese does not intend to identify, Maestri said, will no longer be allowed to say Mass or perform the sacraments.
Of the two remaining cases, Henao and one other were determined by the board to warrant further investigation. The archdiocese does not plan to identify the other priest because he works outside a parish setting, Maestri said.
The announcement about Henao came on a day when a letter from Hughes apologizing to victims of abuse was read aloud at all Masses in the archdiocese.
At St. Louis Cathedral, Hughes himself read the statement.
"The continuing revelations of past sexual misconduct of clergy with minors are embarrassing, bewildering and saddening," Hughes' letter said.
"I want to reiterate my profound sorrow and regret to those victimized and their families. I apologize in the name of all those responsible for the harm done. This includes some actions, my own and others', in the return of some offending priests to parish ministry."
At Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, the congregation, which learned of the allegations against Henao at services during the past few days, was generally flabbergasted.
"There was disbelief and shock," parishioner Sallykay Fann said. "We are very, very prayerful. People feel this is a false charge."
Exactly what Henao is alleged to have done is not clear. Maestri said he could not reveal any specifics, even the time of the alleged abuse, because the case still is being investigated by the archdiocese's review board.
"It has been deemed credible by Archbishop Hughes, and therefore warranting further investigation," Maestri said. "We expect further information will be forthcoming as the investigation continues."
Maestri said the archdiocese will report the allegation to law enforcement authorities if the victim grants permission. He did not know Sunday night whether the victim has done so.
The archdiocese will follow the same course in the other cases turned up by the review board, he said.
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos is a new church at an old location, the former St. Vincent de Paul Church on Dauphine Street. The new parish was formed last summer when five shrinking downtown parishes were merged by the archdiocese.
Henao has been assigned there since the parish was formed, serving essentially as assistant pastor. He says Masses in Spanish for the parish's large Hispanic congregation and holds Bible classes. A skilled painter, he has spruced up much of the church's artwork as well.
Previously, Henao served at Annunciation Church in New Orleans and at St. Jerome Church in Kenner, Maestri said. He also returned to his native Colombia for an unknown amount of time in the 1990s.
For most of the 1980s, Henao was director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the archdiocese, which provides immigration and job-placement help as well as educational and youth programs for area Latinos.
"I'm speechless," said Eliana Morales, who worked at the apostolate alongside Henao for 13 years. "I don't know what to think. I never saw anything close to lewd behavior with him. He was very, very honest and sincere, a profoundly spiritual man.
"In fact, one of the faults everyone found in him was that he was too severe. I hope the accusation is wrong."
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