Recently settled abuse case against former Catholic deacon raises questions about archdiocese's need to disclose
By Jim Mustian
New Orleans Advocate
June 23, 2018
|Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond on Friday issued a letter alerting local Catholics about allegations of sexual abused leveled against George Brignac, a former deacon at Our Lady of the Rosary. Here, Aymond is pictured performing the sacrament of Communion during the Inauguration Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Monday, May 7, 2018.|
|George Brignac, pictured in a Holy Rosary yearbook photo from the early 1980s.|
In 2002, at the height of the sexual abuse scandal that devastated the Catholic Church, nearly 300 American bishops met in Dallas and created a charter intended to protect children and prevent future cover-ups of predatory clergy.
The letter and spirit of the accord were clear: The church, in its proactive atonement, would impose a "zero-tolerance" policy toward any cleric involved in sexual misconduct. And, in a bid to end decades of enabling and obfuscation — and a lack of communication between parish and parishioner — the prelates pledged to be "open and transparent" in discussing a crisis without precedent in the church's history.
"This is especially so with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by sexual abuse of a minor," the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People states in its seventh article.
That same year, Alfred Hughes, the New Orleans archbishop at the time, rewrote local archdiocesan policy to require church officials to alert law enforcement of credible sexual abuse claims against clergy — not only in cases involving children, which must be reported to authorities under state law, but also when adults allege, often decades after the fact, that they were abused as minors.
But this new approach has proved more equivocal in practice than in theory. Survivor groups have criticized the church for failing to deliver on many of its promises, particularly when it comes to the pledge to identify former priests and deacons accused of wrongdoing.
The inconsistencies continued last week, when New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond wrote a letter to church members insisting the archdiocese acted "quickly and pastorally" in response to an explosive lawsuit filed earlier this year that accused a longtime deacon and Catholic schoolteacher, George F. Brignac, of repeatedly raping an altar boy at Holy Rosary School in the early 1980s.
The one-page letter, distributed Friday, was remarkable on several fronts. For one, it revealed that Brignac, now 83 and living in Metairie, had been "publicly removed" from the ministry in 1988, the same year he faced criminal charges of molestation of a juvenile in Orleans Parish.
Left unmentioned was that the archdiocese acknowledges it does not have a single record in its files outlining the reasons for Brignac's defrocking — a reflection of the broad secrecy that surrounded sexual abuse claims at that time.
Church officials deemed the latest allegations against Brignac had merit, but Aymond did not alert the deacon's former parish until two days after The New Orleans Advocate revealed that the archdiocese paid more than $500,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused church officials of allowing a "sexual predator" to work among children in Our Lady of the Rosary Parish.
The settlement was signed May 11, nearly six weeks before news of it was published.
Misconduct allegations against Brignac are well known to the archdiocese — or "nothing new," as Aymond described it. Brignac remained a deacon and teacher in the area even after he stood trial in Jefferson Parish in 1978 and was acquitted by a judge of molesting three boys.
The archdiocese settled this year's lawsuit almost immediately, not even filing a written response to the suit.
The alleged abuse of the altar boy began in 1979, when he was 8, and continued for about three years, until he was in the sixth grade.
"We had evidence," Aymond acknowledged in an interview with The Advocate on Friday.
Yet Friday's letter appears to be the first effort by church officials to identify other possible victims and to notify parishioners of the claims brought against Brignac over the years, including an earlier lawsuit against him that the archdiocese quietly resolved in 2013. Aymond said he was legally "bound to say nothing" about that case.
"The bishops said 'zero tolerance,' and part of that was full disclosure," said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who called on the Archdiocese of New Orleans to be more transparent in its handling of sexual abuse claims.
Lennon added in a telephone interview that the archdiocese had an obligation to alert church members of the allegations against Brignac before they made headlines.
Regarding the timing of his letter, Aymond said he had not been in a hurry to alert parishioners because the former altar boy's claims were "not a new allegation." The Our Lady of Rosary community, he said, had been made aware in 1988 that Brignac "was withdrawn because of something he did wrong."
It's hard to say now how widely known that was at the time. Brignac's defrocking, like his bench trial a decade earlier, does not appear to have attracted any media attention. But Aymond said he can "distinctly remember," as a young priest, when Archbishop Philip Hannan kicked Brignac out of the ministry.
"It was very, very public," Aymond said. "I remember as a priest this happening, and everybody was notified, as we're supposed to."
"People knew," he added. "The school knew. The parish knew."
The main purpose of notifying the congregation, Aymond said, is to protect children. When the new allegations about Brignac were received this year, he said, "quite frankly, there was no urgency because no one was in danger."
The archbishop offered a hypothetical situation in which a longtime cleric was accused of abusing seven separate victims — all of whom came forward at different times. "And it happened every other year," he said. "Then they'd have to report it seven times?"
Aside from protecting children, Aymond said, "the second reason (for notification) would be just so that people would know. But it was already announced and he was pulled out of the ministry — so it's not a new case."
"My contention is — and this is basically our policy — that if we have announced that someone is possibly a predator, if we have announced that, you don’t keep announcing it," Aymond said. "The insinuation is that we were trying to hide something or not be transparent or not follow our policies, and I can only tell you that's not true. I'm a man of integrity."
Archdiocesan policy requires the notification of parishioners any time the church receives a "credible allegation" of sexual abuse, Aymond said, regardless of whether the cleric is still in the ministry. But in this case, the archbishop contended, the church could not distribute a letter until "we were sure that the case was closed and when we had permission from the victim."
Aymond also insisted that there was a confidentiality clause surrounding the settlement that prevented him from discussing its terms.
The victim's attorney, Roger Stetter, denied that there was a confidentiality clause, adding that he has declined to disclose the exact amount of the settlement only because he does not want to set an "upper limit on these cases" going forward.
Stetter said it was "absolutely untrue" that the two sides had any discussion of a notification letter during mediation. "Nor would they need (my client's) permission to send a letter to parishioners," he added. "That's completely absurd."
The letter does not identify the victim in any way.
Aymond said the archdiocese no longer alerts law enforcement about all sexual abuse claims involving adults, instead deferring to the wishes of victims. He said the former altar boy showed "no desire to report it."
"I can see why this person would not want this reported," the archbishop said. "We can't just say (to law enforcement), 'This happened.' We have to say, 'This happened to so-and-so.' "
Ken Daley, an Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office spokesman, said his agency has not received any "allegations of criminal conduct" involving Brignac since the 1988 molestation of a juvenile case, which prosecutors dismissed after "the victim refused to cooperate further in the prosecution."
Stetter said his client recently changed his mind about going to the authorities after discussing his suffering with his family, whom he had not previously told about the rapes. The former altar boy, now 46 and living in St. Tammany Parish, repressed the abuse for several decades until his mother ran into Brignac at a grocery store last year.
There is no statute of limitations in Louisiana for the rape of a child.
"He's angry and he wants justice," Stetter said of his client. "He wants to pursue this so that other children are not victims."
'Praying for a pedophile'
Brignac was not ordained a deacon until 1976, when he began teaching at Holy Rosary and co-directing the altar boy program at Our Lady of the Rosary. By then, he had taught at St. Frances Cabrini School, St. John Vianney Prep and St. Matthew the Apostle — all schools within the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
At St. Matthew, in River Ridge, Brignac instilled the fear of God in girls and boys alike, according to interviews with three former students. One former female student described Brignac as "a very mean person," recalling a time when he taped a towel to the front of her desk so that he would not have to look at her legs during math and science classes.
"He once picked my brother up by the shirt collar and dropped him on the cement," the woman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "My mom went down to complain about it, and of course they did nothing."
It was during this time, in 1977, that Brignac was booked in Jefferson Parish on three counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile. The former female student, who had Brignac as a teacher in seventh and eighth grades at St. Matthew, remembers Father John A. Bendix coming into her classroom and asking the students to pray for Brignac.
"I asked to be excused and walked out and stood in the hallway," the former student said. "We were praying for a pedophile." Bendix has since died.
One of the alleged victims in the Jefferson Parish criminal case said in an interview last week that Brignac "devastated his life" by sexually assaulting him more than a half-dozen times.
He recalled Brignac keeping a paddle and golden ruler in his room that he called Ashley and Goldie, respectively.
"He told us if we ever said anything or did anything (about his misconduct) he was going to hit us with those," the man recalled, choking up. "I was so young, and I paid massive consequences for what he did to me. This haunts me today."
"I'm not done with him," he added of Brignac. "For years I've been hurt by this man. What he did to me was horrible."
While he was a strict disciplinarian, Brignac showed a soft spot for boys, particularly his "chosen ones," said another former student. He not only passed out envelopes of cash to boys at Christmas time, but he also would take weekend trips with a select few every summer to watch Astros baseball games in Houston.
At Holy Rosary, where Brignac began teaching in 1976, his "method of trying to fondle boys was simple," the student said. "He would sit at his desk and have you stand alongside him, and he would gradually put his arm around your waist. After resting it there, he would then try to put a finger or two into your waistband or back pocket. He would lick his lips also."
"I knew this was wrong — and I always pulled away — because I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable," he said. "You don't think to report these things when you're 13 years old; you just suppress it."
That student recalled a time in the eighth grade when Brignac became enraged after a girl fell on top of the boy during horseplay. The teacher began "slinging the girl from on top of me and slapping me across the face," he said. "I ran home in the middle of the day."
The former female student said she assumed that Brignac had "just disappeared" after leaving St. Matthew. In fact, he was transferred from Holy Rosary to the all-girls Cabrini High School in 1984 and ultimately removed from the ministry in 1988.
Aymond said the archdiocese has letters on file — which he declined to release — in which "there were people trying to get him back into ministry. And Archbishop Hannan wrote back and said basically, 'This is not going to happen.' One would guess that there other allegations — we would guess."
Brignac said in a telephone interview last week that he couldn't be expected to recall his actions from more than three decades ago.
"I'm supposed to remember what I did?" Brignac said, referring to the recently settled lawsuit. "I don't know what happened, but whatever it is, it wasn't a rape, I can assure you."
Vows to identify
The archbishop's letter about Brignac last week was noteworthy for another reason. Aymond insisted in the interview that he had intended to notify parishioners all along, even if the settlement of the latest lawsuit had not been discovered by the news media.
Sarah McDonald, an archdiocese spokeswoman, said the archdiocese will make "credible" allegations of sexual abuse public whether the accused cleric is active or inactive. "We have received allegations against retired clergy that we have had to make public," she said.
But it's not clear why that standard wasn't followed in 2013, when the archdiocese settled another case involving Brignac.
Moreover, the policy articulated by McDonald, if carried out, would mark a striking departure from previous sexual abuse cases, in which the archdiocese has often declined to release the names of inactive clergy who are implicated years after leaving the ministry.
Because U.S. dioceses act independently, answering only to Rome, this delicate decision of when to publicly name accused clerics has been left to the discretion of individual archbishops.
In Lafayette, for instance, the local diocese has never disclosed the names of 15 former priests who sexually abused 123 victims before 1985; the diocese paid $26 million to settle those claims.
The identification of Brignac, who has been inactive for 30 years, is not unprecedented for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. But there are high-profile cases in which Aymond has chosen not to identify the offending clergymen.
For instance, in 2009, shortly after Aymond became archbishop, the archdiocese reached a $5 million settlement that resolved 20 lawsuits filed by victims who had been abused by priests, nuns and others in the 1950s and 1960s at two Catholic orphanages on the west bank, The Times-Picayune reported at the time.
In that case, the archdiocese did not identify any of the clergy, all of whom were out of the ministry by the time of the settlement. It was not even clear how many victims were involved.
Stetter, the plaintiff's attorney, was also involved in that settlement.
"What's happening in New Orleans is no different than what's happening all over the world," Stetter said. "The problem is that the Catholic Church has made decisions in the past that they'd rather protect their reputation than children."
"In Brignac's case, there was at least probable cause, as early as 1977, to believe that he molested young boys, and yet they continued to keep him on their staff as a teacher and a leader of the altar boy program," he said. "They essentially aided and abetted the crime of child rape. One might argue that they committed crimes themselves."