Concerns raised over New Orleans’ Catholic institutions shouldering cost of clergy abuse claims

WVUE [New Orleans LA]

September 11, 2023

By Ashlyn Brothers

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ apparent plan to lean more heavily on area churches, schools and ministries to help shoulder the cost of its bankruptcy proceedings and clergy abuse claims has some concerned.

Attorney Desiree Charbonnet said it’s difficult for people to understand how a place you go to pray could be the same place people have preyed on children.

“What most people have a hard time dealing with is that, this is the church, right?” she said. “This is the same church who, from what I can see, has yet to say, ‘We are wrong and we are guilty. We confess. We did this. We did send pedophiles from parish to parish.’

“But it’s the same church that tells you on a Sunday to confess your sins.”

In a letter published Friday, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said that when the Archdiocese of New Orleans first filed for bankruptcy in May 2020, he was told the cost of the proceedings would only impact administrative offices. Then came changes to state law allowing for more alleged victims to file claims against the church in civil court, for abuse claims that previously would have been considered expired.

At the time of the bankruptcy filing, there were just over 30 claims of past abuse active in court against the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Now, there are more than 500 proofs of claim filed with the bankruptcy court, many dating back decades.

“This has been a much longer, complicated and costly process than anyone could have predicted,” Aymond wrote in his letter. “However, I remain steadfast in my conviction that these Chapter 11 proceedings are the best path forward to justly address all past claims of abuse. We will use this process to restructure our financials and streamline our organizational structure to be a local church of vitality and responsive to the needs of the faithful now and into the future.”

Charbonnet said the Archdiocese’s troubles have been largely self-made.

“You knew that these people were abusing these children,” she said. “You continue to pass them around, shuffle them from parish to parish, where they preyed on other children.”Archbishop Aymond offers apology, thanks

Charbonnet said it is difficult to predict when the bankruptcy case can be resolved and who will wind up shouldering its cost.

“I’ve had parents ask me, ‘Does this mean my tuition is going to go up? Or does this mean the part of my tuition I’m paying is going to go toward paying settlement claims?’ I don’t know,” Charbonnet said. “That wasn’t made clear.

“The little old lady who saves her money to go to church every week, and puts money faithfully in the basket … a portion of her little pieces of money is going to go to one of these settlements.”

Investigative journalist and author Jason Berry, who has covered the crisis in the Catholic church extensively through books, articles and documentary films, said, “Every parish pays an assessment to the Archdiocese. It’s something like a tax, if you will. The wealthier parishes pay more, proportionate to how much they bring in. Once those funds go to the Archdiocese, there’s no real mechanism for accountability, as I understand it. The Archdiocese is free to use those funds as they wish.”

Berry said the legal terminology in Aymond’s letter suggests to him that a lawyer had a huge hand in writing it. Berry said he thinks the bankruptcy proceedings have only worsened things for the church.

“The larger question, I think, is why the church has been so slow in reporting perpetrators to law enforcement, and admitting to the public that the scope of the problem is as large as it is,” Berry said. “Well over 100 perpetrators, it now seems, on the list that had been coming out very slowly from the church.

“I don’t know if they could have done better, although I suspect they could have by implementing a policy of full disclosure and negotiating in good faith, rather than turning to attorneys charging $300, $400 and $500 an hour to use bankruptcy as a way of driving down the assets that are on the table.”

Charbonnet said the Archdiocese has spent more than $30 million in professional fees related to the claims and bankruptcy case, with half of that going to one law firm.

“Not one victim has been paid,” Charbonnet said. “It’s just something that people want to have resolved. These victims want to end this nightmare.”

Aymond said the majority of the settlement should be paid by the Archdiocese’s assets and its insurers.

In a statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said, “We believe that Archbishop Aymond is trying to deflect local anger and disappointment away from church officials and onto long-suffering survivors. Moreover, we have always believed that the arbitrary division of Catholic dioceses into separate corporate entities is pure fiction. The bishops are absolute monarchs, and if they decide to use the assets belonging to parishes, educational institutions and other ministries to pay off diocesan debts, there is little, if anything, that can be done by the faithful to stop them.”