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  Hughes Removes Man from Priesthood
Former Pastor Denies Sex-Abuse Allegations

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
April 4, 2005

Archbishop Alfred Hughes told a Belle Chasse congregation this weekend that he has permanently removed its former pastor from the priesthood after three hearing officers advised him they believed Pat Sanders sexually abused two teenagers on an overnight youth trip 12 years ago.

Hughes personally disclosed his decision to parishioners at Saturday evening Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. Bishop Roger Morin continued the announcements at all the parish's Sunday Masses while Hughes led a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II at St. Louis Cathedral.

Hughes temporarily removed Sanders from duty in April 2004 while the Archdiocese of New Orleans conducted a detailed inquiry into the youths' claims. Since then, Sanders has been forbidden to identify himself as a priest or act as a priest, except to celebrate Mass in private.

Sanders denied the youths' allegations and has maintained his innocence in e-mail messages and in personal contacts with parishioners.

"I am devastated and heartbroken," he said Sunday by e-mail when asked to respond to Hughes' decision. "I feel an injustice has been done to me and my life's vocation has been taken away. I steadfastly maintain my innocence and will appeal this decision to the Vatican."

Recently, a three-person panel took fresh testimony from Sanders and his accusers, and reviewed all the church's earlier investigative reports, said the Rev. William Maestri, the archdiocese's spokesman.

He said the panel was composed of a psychiatrist, a licensed clinical social worker with experience dealing with sexual abuse, and a priest from outside the archdiocese who is a canon lawyer. He declined to name them.

"The panel reached a decision that the abuse had occurred," Maestri said.

Hughes forwarded the panel's report to an archdiocesan review board of about 18 members. That board had reviewed the results of a preliminary inquiry when the complaints first surfaced last year. It recommended then that Sanders be relieved of his duties pending a fuller inquiry, Maestri said.

On receiving the most recent results, the review board unanimously concurred with the three-person panel, he said.

Sanders was accused of sexually abusing two teenagers during an overnight trip to a Biloxi youth camp in 1993 when he was serving at Resurrection of Our Lord parish.

Hughes said last year that one of the complainants recently had come forward with an allegation. The man invited the archdiocese to contact his companion from the youth trip for corroboration. It did, and the companion told a similar story, the church said.

But Sanders questioned the disciplinary process. "I was convicted of a crime, with the verdict made public, and yet I was never allowed a church trial or a civil trial. How is this justice?" he said.

Sanders received an administrative hearing, not a church trial, in part because he was not accused of abusing minors. At the time of the 1993 offense, church law regarded 16-year-olds as adults; although that since has changed, the statute in force at the time governs the disciplinary response.

Maestri said that so far as he knows, neither man has filed a civil suit. The church has never identified them.

Because Sanders has the right to appeal, the case is not closed, he said.

This means that Sanders, 41, who has taken work at an insurance office, will continue to receive a car allowance and a pastor's salary of about $1,300 a month, Maestri said.

Sanders was an unusually popular priest in Belle Chasse, and his removal from the pulpit last year shocked and dismayed parishioners. Hundreds raised $6,000 for legal expenses, and they organized a long campaign of support with e-mail messages and dinner invitations. Scores displayed baby blue ribbons on their lapels, mailboxes and front porches to express their solidarity with him.

Distressed telephone calls flew among dismayed parishioners Saturday night and Sunday, said Shelly Chiappetta, a friend who keeps in close touch with Sanders.

"Everybody's asking whether there's anything we can do. We still believe in him and in his innocence," Chiappetta said.

She said people wept in church at the news. "I don't think anyone expected a decision that he can't return to priestly ministry. I think everybody expected he'd return in some capacity."

Chiappetta said Sanders sent scores of supporters an e-mail message. "He has told everyone not to let this event affect their faith. That Pope John Paul II was a source of perseverance for all of us and that he should be our example in our journey and our source of strength. He said God and his church is bigger than any one decision."

While Maestri stressed that the Sanders case went through several layers of review and concurrence by two groups of advisers, Chiappetta said many in Belle Chasse held Hughes solely accountable.

She indicated that many saw it as an attempt by Hughes to overcompensate for the church's mistakes in handling abusive priests in Boston, where Hughes served for three years as an aide to Cardinal Bernard Law.

"It's just shocking he has made such a drastic decision" on Sanders, she said. "But he's made poor decisions in the past in Boston, and unfortunately honest priests like Father Pat will have to suffer for his past sins."

 
 

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