2 Priests Face New Sex-Abuse Allegations
One Placed on Leave; Second 'Reminded' to Avoid Ministry
By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
January 25, 2004
The Archdiocese of New Orleans has placed a Marrero pastor on indefinite leave based on a charge he sexually abused a child in Pearl River in the mid-1980s, a church spokesman said Saturday.
Separately, the archdiocese said it had a fresh allegation that a retired priest who left New Orleans under a cloud 11 years ago sexually abused a boy at a Metairie parish in the mid-1970s.
Both complaints involved boys who were under the age of 13 at the time of the alleged incidents, said the Rev. William Maestri, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Both men have been the subject of past sex abuse complaints.
In Marrero, parishioners at Visitation of Our Lady Church learned Saturday evening, and will be told at all Masses today, that the Rev. Michael Fraser has been placed on leave and forbidden to function as a priest, Maestri said.
The archdiocese did not disclose Fraser's whereabouts.
It said he has denied the allegation.
In addition, Archbishop Alfred Hughes has "reminded" Bernard Schmaltz, a retired priest, "that he is not to engage in any act of priestly ministry; he has no faculties as a priest," Maestri said.
Schmaltz's situation is different from Fraser's. Since leaving St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Gentilly Woods in early 1993, Schmaltz has pursued a second career as a successful real estate agent in Pass Christian, Miss. He is still technically a priest attached to the archdiocese of New Orleans, however, and Maestri repeatedly referred to him Saturday as "Father Schmaltz."
He said Schmaltz might still have economic ties to the archdiocese, but he was not sure what they were.
Reached late Saturday, Schmaltz vigorously denied the allegation.
He said he had never sexually abused anyone in his life.
He said he could say no more. "As much as I disagree with them, the guidelines of the church say I can't give an interview, although believe me, I'm biting at the bit," he said.
Maestri declined to divulge details about the two new allegations against Fraser and Schmaltz, except to say that both came from individuals who are now adults.
The incident involving Fraser allegedly occurred in the mid-1980s while he served at Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Pearl River, Maestri said.
He said one involving Schmaltz allegedly occurred while he served at St. Clement of Rome in Metairie in the mid-1970s, although Schmaltz said it was grounded in the early '70s and allegedly involved a 7-year-old boy.
Both victims have elected not to go to local law enforcement, Maestri said.
But the archdiocese is attempting to craft a report on the incidents that may help local police while respecting the complainants' request for anonymity, he said.
Air of openness
The archdiocese made the disclosures in an unusual Saturday night news conference that was notably different from the way the church has handled past allegations of clerical misconduct.
The live announcement before all major local news outlets was evidence of the archdiocese's commitment to be as open as possible about its handling of such complaints, Maestri said.
Before the sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002 the Church made no disclosure, even to the affected parish, when it occasionally removed a priest on a charge of sexual abuse of a minor.
In the new, post-scandal environment, "the allegations were handled promptly; we are being forthright in making them to you, to the people of the parish, as well as to all Catholics in the archdiocese," Maestri said.
Although this is not the first local case of a priest being relieved of his duties in the post-scandal environment, it is the first to be announced in such a fashion.
Seeking to underscore the seriousness with which the church takes such charges, Maestri said the charge against Fraser was received Jan. 12 and that he was relieved as pastor two days later. Fraser was out of town at the time and had already arranged a substitute to say Mass at Visitation last weekend, so parishioners did not note his absence was unusual, Maestri said.
The allegation against Schmaltz was received Tuesday; Hughes' letter to him went out the next day, Maestri said.
An independent lay review panel consisting partly of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers heard the facts of both cases Thursday and supported Hughes' judgment, Maestri said.
Previous abuse claims
Both men named in Saturday's announcement have been previously accused of sexual abuse of minors.
Fraser and the archdiocese are currently in civil court defending a charge that in the early or mid-1990s Fraser sexually abused Robert Johnson, a teenage parishioner at Saints Peter and Paul, the same parish that is the source of the new complaint.
Johnson and his parents have fought pre-trial motions all the way to the state Supreme Court, finally prevailing there and keeping their claim alive for trial.
Fraser, a priest for 29 years, has remained in ministry because Hughes and the lay review panel were not convinced that the Johnsons' claim against Fraser was credible.
However, the board thought otherwise on reviewing the second complaint, Maestri said.
"Oh, God, this is the answer to our prayers," said Johnson's mother, Charlene, who wept as she talked about the news that Fraser had been relieved. "We feel such . . . such relief. Hopefully the truth will finally come out. We thank God this has finally come to pass."
In the years since their son's alleged abuse, the Johnsons have become vocal advocates for sexual abuse victims and harsh critics of the local church's handling of complaints against priests. They traveled to Baton Rouge last year to support a bill adding clergy to the list of professions that must report suspected sexual abuse of minors.
Shadowed by complaints
Schmaltz left New Orleans in early 1993, shortly after a lawsuit was filed against him charging that he had repeatedly molested a boy at St. Clement of Rome during the 1973-74 school year.
Schmaltz vigorously denied the claim, and noted that he had previously been shadowed by similar complaints of sexual misconduct with youths at another assignment in Houma.
When the 1992 allegation surfaced, Schmaltz was pastor of St. Gabriel. He asked for a leave of absence to clear his name and left with a unanimous vote of confidence from the church's parish council, as well as a personal expression of support from then-Archbishop Francis Schulte, who said he believed in Schmaltz's innocence.
Schmaltz and the archdiocese prevailed in court two years later when they successfully argued that the plaintiff had brought his claim too late to sue.
Schmaltz elected to retire at that time, Maestri said.
Under the church's new procedure, the charges against both men now go to Rome for evaluation. The Vatican may convene a Church court to test their veracity there, or more likely send them back for a Church trial here, Maestri said.
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