Accused Priest Targets Hughes
Archbishop Answers to Defamation Suit

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
June 13, 2005

The pretrial battle in a former New Orleans priest's defamation suit against Archbishop Alfred Hughes so far is less about five accusations of child molestation against the priest than whether Hughes sought out and publicized the claims purely to burnish his own reputation as an aggressive watchdog.

What Hughes knew, when he knew it, and whether he actively sought out old molestation claims against Bernard Schmaltz were the topics of a four-hour April 11 deposition of Hughes by Schmaltz's attorney, Buddy Lemann.

"Did you, Archbishop, direct either Sister Carmelita (Centanni, the archdiocese's victim-assistance coordinator) or some other delegate of yours to do -- to tar -- in effect, tar and feather Bernie Schmaltz, to go and beat the bushes and find alleged victims of Bernie Schmaltz?" Lemann asked in one exchange.

"That's like asking, 'Have you stopped beating your wife,' " Hughes answered.

Hughes repeatedly denied any self-serving motive in dealing with Schmaltz.

Instead, he portrayed his actions as those of an archbishop committed to handling sexual-abuse complaints against priests under new church rules mandating vigor and transparency.

The deposition was released by Schmaltz.

Schmaltz has denied all allegations of sexual abuse and will do so at a trial if necessary, Lemann said in an interview. Until then, however, some of the pre-trial skirmishing has focused on Hughes' actions, not Schmaltz's.

Years-old allegations

In January 2004, the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced it had received an accusation that Schmaltz molested a child during Schmaltz's tenure as a priest in Metairie in the 1970s.

A month later, the archdiocese called a second news conference to announce it had five more child molestation claims against three unidentified priests. Although the archdiocese did not say so, three of those were dormant, years-old claims lodged against Schmaltz in Houma, where he served as a young priest, Schmaltz said in his lawsuit.

All of the claims were vetted internally and found to be worth further investigation, archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. William Maestri said.

Schmaltz soon sued Hughes for defamation. In the following months, two more priests accused of sexually abusing children filed nearly identical defamation suits against Hughes.

All alleged the charges were not true and that Hughes was using them to enhance his own reputation for vigilance.

Schmaltz claimed in his suit that the archdiocese timed the second news conference to blunt the fallout from a national report being released that day that would castigate Catholic bishops for protecting abusive priests.

Charges resurface

Now 57, Schmaltz served his early years in the Houma-Thibodaux area before it was separated from the Archdiocese of New Orleans into its own diocese. He later served in Metairie and New Orleans.

In 1992, Schmaltz was sued by a youth who said the priest molested him in Metairie in the 1970s. Schmaltz resigned as pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish to fight the suit. But he never returned to the priesthood, even after a judge ruled the claim too old to go to trial. Schmaltz forged a new career selling real estate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Shortly after the January 2004 news conference announcing the new claim against Schmaltz, diocesan officials in Houma-Thibodaux contacted the Archdiocese of New Orleans about three, years-old sexual abuse charges lodged against Schmaltz there, Hughes said in his deposition. Hughes said he instructed his staff to follow up.

Hughes said officials in Houma-Thibodaux had received permission for the first time from the alleged victims to forward their written complaints to New Orleans.

They were received in New Orleans, evaluated as freshly received complaints, and disclosed to the public as "new" in the Feb. 27 news conference, Hughes said.

"They were new allegations in the form that we require by our policy before we act," Hughes said. "We don't act just on verbal communication. . . . The allegation needs to be put in writing."

But under questioning, Hughes also acknowledged that for years the archdiocese had known the Houma-Thibodaux charges were out there.

Long ago, church officials in Houma-Thibodaux gave their New Orleans colleagues a verbal heads-up, Hughes said.

In fact, New Orleans archbishops acted on that information several times, Hughes said.

Going public

In the deposition, Hughes identified a church record indicating that in 1998, his predecessor, Archbishop Francis Schulte, quietly sought Schmaltz's retirement based not only on the 1992 lawsuit but also on the Houma-Thibodaux allegations that Schulte knew about unofficially.

Moreover, Hughes acknowledged that those same Houma-Thibodaux allegations figured in his own decision to publicize the January 2004 accusation against Schmaltz.

Hughes explained that he had learned a few months earlier that Schmaltz was saying Mass for the public at his Mississippi home. Church officials regarded that as a violation of the terms of his retirement, in which he technically remained a priest and received some archdiocesan benefits.

As Hughes saw it then, he told Lemann, by January 2004, Schmaltz had been sued in 1992, was the subject of a new sexual-abuse complaint, and unofficially was known to be the subject of three old complaints in Houma-Thibodaux, even though the victims there were not yet willing to formally communicate with New Orleans.

"And this was now the fifth complaint. . . . "He was bringing people in, including children into his home," Hughes said. "I had no way to supervise what was going on. I have a responsibility to protect the young. It's on that basis that I reluctantly, but out of concern for the common good, went public."