DA: Accusations against Priest Will Undergo Careful Scrutiny
By John DeSantis
September 3, 2007
HOUMA — A criminal investigation into a claim that a Houma priest sexually abused a former altar boy through the early and mid-1990s could follow a long and difficult road, a prosecutor said Sunday.
But assurances also were given that the suspect's status as a cleric would play no role in justice-system officials' decisions, said J. Phil Haney, district attorney for St. Martin, Iberville and St. Mary parishes.
"It is easy to get an arrest warrant for probable cause, but we have got to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt," Haney said in a Sunday telephone interview.
A case report filed last week with the Morgan City Police Department accuses the Rev. Etienne LeBlanc, pastor of Annunziata Catholic Church in Houma, of as many as 24 instances of sexual abuse of one altar boy within the rectory of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Morgan City, where the priest served as pastor from 1987 through 2000.
Over his career as a priest, LeBlanc has served at Catholic churches throughout Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, including St. Thomas Aquinas in Thibodaux, St. Hilary of Poitiers in Mathews, Holy Family in Dulac and St. Eloi in Theriot.
LeBlanc is on administrative leave from Annunziata, undergoing psychological and psychiatric testing while officials of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux perform their own investigation. Bishop Sam Jacobs told churchgoers last week that LeBlanc denies the accusations.
The district attorney was made aware Thursday that police might be presenting him with a case against a priest, although he was not provided with details.
LeBlanc's accuser, a 25-year-old Morgan City man filed the police report last Tuesday, in which he states he would be more comfortable talking about the details with a veteran detective at that department, Sgt. Teddy Liner.
Liner was out of town until Friday but is aware of the complaint and plans to meet with the accuser, Haney said.
"They know that usually you get one shot at investigating this and that it can take some time," the district attorney said.
If there is more than one victim involved, he said, the case is generally made stronger. The accuser alleges there were at least two other altar servers he knew personally who had been molested by LeBlanc and that the boys made a pact when they were 11 years old not to talk about it.
Detectives, once informed of the names of those alleged victims, would be free to question them and find out more.
"Procedurally, I think these things are taken very seriously from the standpoint of the victim's side and if we will have to ask ourselves do we have a solid case, solid enough that we can put this man on trial," said Haney, who expressed faith in local law enforcement's ability to do its job.
"They are not going to be taken aback by the fact that it involves a minister or a priest," Haney said, adding that once the investigation is complete the evidence would likely be presented to a grand jury.
"That gives us a chance to let people in the community judge evidence and credibility, just as they would on a regular jury," Haney said.
One of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting sex-crime cases in recent years, Haney said, especially those involving children or where accusations are made years after a crime is alleged to have occurred, is what prosecutors call "the CSI factor." That's a reference to the "CSI" television series, in which cases are solved in an hour's time, often through obscure and inventive use of DNA and other physical evidence in which new technology plays an important role.
Many jury members, prosecutors have said, become more difficult to convince if "CSI-style" evidence is not included in a case.
But Haney said proper work with a jury, and education as to how the real world operates, can dispel such notions.
Haney noted that in a recent study done by an expert from the Acadiana Crime Lab, 17 to 20 laboratories reported that about half of the time, DNA evidence is not found in sexual-assault cases.
In a recent case where a former Thibodaux Police officer was arrested in connection with allegations of sexual abuse from 20 years ago, investigators said they had worked their case for about two weeks but also said the victim had provided evidence to them, while not describing what specifically it consisted of.
"DNA evidence is great," Haney said. "But good police work and good detective work are important if you can corroborate a lot of the details."
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