|Court Fight Centers on Accusations of Sexual Abuse against Priest
By John Desantis
July 10, 2011
A Terrebonne Parish judge hearing the civil case of a former altar boy accusing a Catholic priest of sexually abusing him 20 years ago has ordered church officials to turn over a secret report that includes information concerning other allegations against the same cleric.
But attorneys for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux say they will fight District Judge Timothy Ellender's order and plan to have their objections heard by a panel of appeals-court judges.
The alleged victim, 28-year-old Jared Ribardi of Morgan City, also filed a criminal complaint against the now-retired priest, Ettienne LeBlanc, in 2007.
Authorities in Morgan City have taken no action, stating there is no corroborating evidence.
Roger Stetter, the New Orleans attorney who represents Ribardi, contends the diocese's unwillingness to give up the record of the investigation into LeBlanc's alleged conduct, commissioned by Bishop Sam Jacobs, is proof of a continued culture of secrecy within the Catholic Church in regard to abuse cases.
"They have covered up for this priest for 30 years, and they just won't quit," Stetter said. "The church has promised transparency in cases of abuse. Where is the transparency when they will not provide a report from their own investigation concerning LeBlanc's misdeeds and abuse of his ministry?"
Don Richard, one of the lawyers representing the diocese, says the court is not entitled to the report because it was prepared in anticipation of litigation and is exempt from production under civil court rules. But Stetter says the investigation began before the suit was filed.
Ribardi alleges LeBlanc began sexually abusing him in 1991, shortly before he became an altar boy, and continued doing so until 1997.
The Courier does not ordinarily identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, but Ribardi has requested that his name be made public.
Ribardi remains jailed in Allen Parish on a probation violation. It stems from a past conviction on a charge of indecent behavior with a juvenile. The probation violation was the result of Ribardi living at his grandparents' home in Morgan City, which is near a school. As a convicted sex offender, Ribardi is barred from living near schools. At his probation hearing, he said he was unable to find another place to live.
LeBlanc was placed on administrative leave from his duties as pastor at Houma's Annunziata Church in 2007 after church officials became aware of Ribardi's complaint. LeBlanc now lives in a private residence in Westwego.
WHAT'S IN THE REPORT?
The report Ellender ordered produced includes allegations that LeBlanc sexually assaulted a Nicholls State University student nearly 30 years ago, when LeBlanc was pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, according to court papers. The church is on the grounds of the Thibodaux university. Friends and relatives of the student, Timmy Folse, who killed himself in 1989, say he told them about LeBlanc's alleged behavior. Folse considered LeBlanc a friend and had sought counseling from him, they said.
During a deposition for Ribardi's civil suit in 2009, LeBlanc was asked by Ribardi's attorney if he knew Folse. LeBlanc refused to answer, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination, which he invoked at least 57 other times during the deposition.
LeBlanc also refused to say whether he knew Ribardi or whether the signature on Ribardi's altar-boy certificate is his. He refused to answer questions about whether he had sexually abused Ribardi and whether he had taken vows of celibacy as a priest.
The allegations by friends of Folse, and the investigator's report believed to reference them, are important to attorneys on both sides of the current legal battle in the Ribardi case. It could provide clues as to whether church officials knew about allegations against LeBlanc prior to him being sent to Holy Cross in Morgan City, where Ribardi alleges he was abused.
Folse, who shot himself June 21, 1989, in New Orleans, never reported the alleged misdeeds to church officials. His widow, Jane G. Folse, said he was convinced that if he did, the complaint would go nowhere.
But a friend, Michael White, said he told his former high-school religion teacher of the alleged misconduct. In an interview last week, the teacher recalled telling White that he should go to higher-ups in the church. She said she notified a nun years later.
EMAILING THE BISHOP
After he learned LeBlanc was relieved of his duties at Annunziata, White emailed Bishop Sam Jacobs on Sept. 20, 2007. He informed the bishop of the Folse allegations, stating that he had discussed them many years ago. White, now 52, supplied copies of their email exchange to The Courier.
"I would like to confirm an incident that happened many years ago at Nicholls State around 1978-1979," one of White's emails states. "I say confirm because the incident was reported at that time, but I am not sure to what level the report made it to."
White said he and another friend, Wayne Brunet, dropped off Folse at the Aquinas Center, where Folse lived at the time. The church center then had dorms but no longer does. LeBlanc also lived at the center. In an interview, Brunet, 52, confirmed White's account.
"We spoke with Timmy the next day, and he was very upset," White wrote in his email to Jacobs. "Timmy told us when he went in the Aquinas Center that night, E. LeBlanc was naked and started chasing Timmy around (the) center. Timmy never did admit to us if anything further than that happen(ed)."
Jacobs wrote back the same day, thanking White for the information.
"I want to assure you that there is every intent on my part to deal with this situation. That is why I acted quickly when the allegation was brought to my attention," Jacobs wrote. "Besides the investigation that is being done by the legal system, we have hired an investigator independent of this office to look into the matter and to present me whatever evidence of truth he finds so that I can act prudentially. I would be glad to sit down with you, but it seems that yours is hearsay rather than a personal experience with Fr. LeBlanc. I would like to know if you are comfortable talking to the investigator as well, so that he has as much information as possible to come to a conclusion."
On Oct. 9., 2007, Jacobs sent White an email confirming that his accusation and contact information had been turned over to the investigator, who apparently acted swiftly. In an email to Jacobs, White confirmed that he and Brunet had been interviewed by the investigator.
'IT DESTROYED HIM'
The investigator did not speak to Folse's widow. But she has given a statement to Ribardi's lawyers. In an interview with The Courier, Jane G. Folse said Timmy Folse remained troubled by LeBlanc's alleged advances for years.
"My husband had a friendship with LeBlanc for a long time," she said. "He was staying at the Aquinas Center. He told me that he was undressing, preparing to go to bed and take a shower."
That, she said, was when a nude LeBlanc allegedly appeared and touched Folse. What became clear to her over the years, she said, was a sense of violation and betrayal suffered by her late husband.
"I did not press him for details," Folse said. "I knew all the pain he had continually and the nights he would lie in bed and talk about how he could never let that go. He never released any of his pain and said it made him feel lesser of a man. It destroyed him."
She could not supply details of anything else that may have happened between LeBlanc and Folse. But she is certain it contributed to his decision to take his own life.
Folse said she was distressed when told that LeBlanc refused to answer whether he knew her late husband during the deposition.
The record of LeBlanc's questioning could be presented to a jury if the Ribardi case goes to trial. If that happens, legal experts said, a jury could be allowed to draw inferences of civil guilt from LeBlanc's refusal to answer.
Dane Ciolino, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, is not involved with the lawsuit but was contacted by The Courier as an independent legal analyst. He said it is important to remember that everyone has a right not to answer questions that could incriminate them in any criminal case that might arise.
"When someone invokes the Fifth Amendment, the natural inclination is to immediately infer that the person would incriminate himself by answering," Ciolino said. "But sometimes people invoke the Fifth when they believe they haven't done anything wrong but are taking the advice of counsel. As a technical matter it means nothing other than that the person is not responsive to questions."
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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