Accused Priest Files Suit against N.O. Archbishop
Pastor Says Hughes Acted Too Quickly
By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
January 8, 2005
A Catholic priest took the extraordinary step of suing his archbishop Friday, charging that Archbishop Alfred Hughes defamed him by ordering him out of his Marrero pulpit on a charge that he molested a child.
The Rev. Michael Fraser also charged that Hughes violated the church's own procedures when he relieved Fraser from ministry as pastor of Visitation of Our Lady Parish.
He said Hughes acted before the completion of a preliminary investigation, as church policy requires.
Hughes relieved Fraser of all priestly duties and ordered him to leave Visitation last January. That was a day after the Archdiocese of New Orleans received a complaint from a man who said Fraser had sexually molested him as a child at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Pearl River in the mid-1980s.
A letter from Hughes dated Jan. 14 told the pastor of Hughes' decision. Hughes told Fraser the church would pursue an investigation to "acquire a clear and specific understanding" of the facts underlying the allegation, according to the lawsuit.
Ten days later, the archdiocese called a news conference to announce its action -- a novel, aggressive move compared with its earlier handling of such cases.
The news conference included Fraser's denial of any wrongdoing, repeated again in Friday's lawsuit.
Hughes too hasty, suit says
Fraser charged in his lawsuit that Hughes acted too soon, humiliating Fraser with a public announcement before Hughes had completed the preliminary investigation archdiocesan policy requires before a priest is removed.
But the Rev. William Maestri, church spokesman, defended the archdiocese's's handling of the accusation.
"The archdiocese believes it acted responsibly, respecting the rights of all concerned. We stand by our actions and believe they were the proper thing to do," he said.
According to the chronology the church released last year, Hughes suspended Fraser after consultation with Sister Carmelita Centanni, a Marianite nun who is the archdiocese's victim assistance coordinator, and Bishop Roger Morin, an auxiliary bishop who is closest to Hughes in the daily operations of the archdiocese.
An advisory panel dominated by laypeople concurred with Hughes' judgment eight days later, Maestri said.
That response is appropriate under church policy, Maestri said.
"When an allegation comes in, there is a movement by individuals . . . to move it along in a preliminary stage to determine whether it's credible or not," Maestri said. "If it's deemed to be credible, then the person is placed on leave."
But the church's investigation continues past that, he said.
2nd accusation for priest
The January complaint was the second charging Fraser with sexually abusing a minor. In 1998, a St. Tammany family sued Fraser for allegedly sexually abusing Robert Johnson, their teenage son, also at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, in the mid-1990s.
To the family's dismay, the church left Fraser in ministry despite their complaint. After the 2004 accusation, the church settled with the Johnsons out of court, the family said.
Fraser still is involved in an internal church judicial process stemming from the 2004 complaint, Maestri said.
On completion of its investigation, the church sent Fraser's file to Rome. The Vatican returned it to New Orleans last fall with instructions to Hughes to convene a church court to hear the matter.
Fraser's attorney, Arthur "Buddy" Lemann, said Fraser has been wrestling with the possibility of suing for almost a year. "He's not happy about it, but ultimately he came to the conclusion that if he's going to get due process he'll get it from Caesar, not from the Vatican."
He described Fraser as an "outcast" now living in Tyler County, Texas. "He doesn't want to make a statement," Lemann said.
"I think he's analyzed correctly that he hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell" of prevailing in the church court, Lemann said.
The suit charges that Hughes libeled and defamed Fraser, inflicted emotional distress and invaded his privacy.
The suit is a near-duplicate of another that Lemann filed in April on behalf of a former New Orleans priest, Bernard Schmaltz, who was named in the same January news conference as the target of a sex abuse complaint.
Schmaltz, however, left the priesthood 12 years ago and made a new career as a real estate agent on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He too, denied the allegation. He sued Hughes for defamation and invasion of privacy just a few weeks later.
The archdiocese sought unsuccessfully to dismiss the Schmaltz suit in lower courts. Its appeal is now before the state Supreme Court, Maestri said.
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