NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
September 9, 2023
By Maya Yang and David Hammer
Gregory Aymond’s letter contradicts promises made to schools and churches when archdiocese declared bankruptcy in May 2020
Contradicting promises he made when his archdiocese declared bankruptcy in May 2020, New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, told the area’s Catholic churches, schools and other ministries that they will now have to share some of the costs of resolving hundreds of clergy abuse claims.
Aymond’s notice came in a letter on Friday, at the end of a particularly bad news week for his organization. One day earlier, a grand jury in New Orleans indicted the retired archdiocesan priest Lawrence Hecker on charges of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated crime against nature and theft.
Hecker’s indictment came less than three months after the Guardian exposed a typed statement that he gave in 1999 in which he admitted to leaders at the New Orleans archdiocese – the second oldest Catholic archdiocese in the US – that he had inflicted “overtly sexual acts” on multiple teenagers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
On Friday, as Hecker turned himself over to be arrested on the indictment against him, Aymond’s letter revealed that individual Catholic churches, schools and ministries in the New Orleans area will now be required to help shoulder some of the costs required to resolve hundreds of clergy abuse claims.
The claims are part of the archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy protection case and remain “too costly to defend” outside of that context, Aymond’s letter said to an area with about a half-million Catholics.
Aymond first distributed the letter to local clergy at their annual convocation of priests, explaining that expenses from the bankruptcy case that the archdiocese filed in 2020 have far exceeded the predictions of the organization’s attorneys at the Jones Walker law firm.
A letter Aymond sent the Vatican in April 2020 indicated out-of-pocket expenses for the bankruptcy would be less than $7.5m.
It now appears the cost of settling more than 500 claims is likely to exceed $100m. As of last month, the bankruptcy attorneys’ and consultants’ fees alone – some as high as $800 an hour – had surpassed $26m.
Much of those fees have gone to attorneys at Jones Walker. Notably, a top partner at Jones Walker, Wayne Zeringue, is married to the archdiocese’s in-house attorney, Susan Zeringue.
Aymond’s letter had garnered him criticism from at least one prominent New Orleans-born Catholic by Saturday.
The Tony-award winning actor Wendell Pierce wrote on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter: “The audacity. Archbishop Aymond of New Orleans says that the local parishes and schools have to help pay for the sex abuse of priests. It’s criminal and immoral to make that suggestion. The Catholic Church now wants its followers to be complicit in their generations of crime & sin.”
When the church first filed for bankruptcy, Aymond assured area Catholics that “no money from parish collections will be used to resolve claims. Parish funds are separate from archdiocesan accounts and the pastor decides how those are used for parish ministry.”
However, his letter on Friday marked a direct reversal of the reassurances he gave in 2020.
“When we filed for chapter 11 reorganization in 2020, I was advised by legal counsel that the … proceedings would only impact our administrative offices and not the apostolates – parishes, schools, and ministries – of the archdiocese of New Orleans,” Aymond wrote.
Aymond’s letter continued: “Unfortunately, this is no longer the case because of many external factors now facing us … We now know that there must be a contribution from the apostolates. We do not yet know what that total contribution will be or what will be asked of each entity.
“I felt it important to share this information with you as it represents a significant change in our original understanding of the Chapter 11 proceedings and will, in some cases, affect future planning,” Aymond’s letter added.
He said that the archdiocese would work to downsize its portfolio of 1,400 properties since “soaring insurance rates and costly maintenance” have affected its ability to properly maintain those holdings.
Aymond’s letter largely blamed a change in state law in 2021 that allowed three years to file civil lawsuits seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse, regardless of how long ago the abuse allegedly occurred. A legal ruling recently upheld the constitutionality of that change.
Aymond said the number of abuse claims ballooned from about 30 lawsuits in 2020 – which he said were already “too costly to defend” – to more than 500 proofs of claim filed in bankruptcy court by a March 2021 deadline.
In an interview with WWL-TV and the Times-Picayune in 2020, Aymond explained that insurance would cover most of the sexual abuse claims payments and the archdiocese’ investments and property could be sold to fill in the gaps, if necessary. Documents in the court record show that the archdiocese itself has also declared that its buildings are collectively worth more than $2bn.
When WWL-TV asked Aymond why it was necessary to file for bankruptcy if insurance would cover most of the costs, a member of his communications team interrupted to stop the line of questioning.
Aymond did say that progress is being made in the court-administered mediation process to negotiate a final settlement with abuse victims.
But just last month, court records show the church’s lawyers opposed setting a deadline to come up with a final settlement. Attorneys for abuse claimants asked for that deadline after a judge in New York recently ordered a Catholic diocese there to come up with a final settlement by October or be kicked out of bankruptcy.
Additionally, an attorney for an insurance company involved in the bankruptcy case recently filed a motion saying he had not gotten any communication regarding mediation.
In a statement to New Orleans’s Times-Picayune news outlet, an attorney representing the apostolates, Douglas Draper, said: “The letter represents what is going to happen and what the apostolates are going to be asked to do, and there is nothing else to say about it.”
Meanwhile, the investigative reporter Jason Berry who has reported on decades of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, told the outlet: “It’s a moral disaster that stems from putting your eggs in the basket of firms like Jones Walker.
“Aymond admits in the letter that counsel told him three years ago that it would only have an impact on the administration. Now he’s saying the lawyers were wrong.”
The accusations against Hecker make him just one of several hundred people employed by Roman Catholic institutions in New Orleans who have been accused of sexual abuse. He was among more than 70 priests and deacons whom the archdiocese itself in 2018 publicly labeled as a credibly accused child molester, though many more clergyman and non-clerical workers have have been accused of such abuse.
Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.
In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453 or visit their website for more resources and to report child abuse or DM for help. For adult survivors of child abuse, help is available at ascasupport.org. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International