Loyola University, church officials settle claims that Jesuit priest raped 5-year-old on campus

By Jim Mustian
New Orleans Advocate
July 09, 2018

Fr. Benjamin Wren

Catholic Church officials have settled a sexual abuse lawsuit that accused a popular Jesuit priest of raping a young girl dozens of times at Loyola University more than three decades ago.

The lawsuit, filed nearly two years ago, claimed the Rev. Benjamin L. Wren sexually assaulted the girl beginning in 1978 — when she was 5 years old — and warned her she would go to hell if she told anyone about their "special secret."

Wren, an eccentric professor who taught Zen Buddhism at Loyola, died of lung cancer in 2006.

The lawsuit was dismissed Friday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court with a single-page motion that offered no details about the settlement.

Terms were not disclosed, and spokeswomen for all three of the defendants — the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Loyola and the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province — declined to comment.

The plaintiff's attorney, John H. Denenea Jr., also declined to comment on the case but said its outcome did not absolve the church of its "obligation of transparency" in handling sexual abuse claims.  

The settlement is the second of its kind in as many months involving the New Orleans archdiocese, which recently paid more than $500,000 to settle claims that a former Catholic deacon raped an 8-year-old altar boy beginning in 1979.

The deacon, George F. Brignac, was removed from the ministry in 1988 following a third police investigation into claims that he had molested young boys.

The Advocate reported on Sunday that Brignac, despite being defrocked, was serving as a lector at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in Metairie as recently as last month, reading Scripture and announcements.

The Wren case differed significantly in that the 2016 lawsuit contained the only known abuse allegations brought against the late priest, who was at Loyola for 35 years. The accusations shocked many of Wren's former students, some of whom knew him affectionately as "Zen Ben Wren."

Wren taught Zen classes that reportedly drew commuters from as far away as Pensacola, Floriday, to Loyola's fifth-floor "zendo" in Marquette Hall. He founded a ministry called the "Community of John," performing Masses and preaching a Buddhist-Christian doctrine that merged Catholicism with Eastern philosophy.

His widow, a former student who married Wren in 1996, after he left the priesthood, told The Advocate in 2016 that "the whole community of New Orleans" would share her outrage over the sexual assault allegations. "He was the most honorable person I know," she said at the time.

The lawsuit claimed Wren befriended the young girl in 1978, enlisting the 5-year-old as his helper and entrusting her with "simple tasks such as passing out books and missalettes" and running errands on campus.

The girl typically spent about 10 weeks a year living with her grandmother, a staff member at Loyola.

The abuse "began slowly," the lawsuit alleged, "with light touching and caressing of (the girl) by Father Wren," but soon escalated to include the priest forcing the girl to perform oral sex. By the time the girl was 9 or 10, the lawsuit said, the abuse included "forcible sexual intercourse." The victim alleged that she was sexually assaulted eight to 10 times a year between 1978 and 1985.

"Father Wren would instruct Jane Doe to clean up in the bathroom before she returned to her grandmother," the lawsuit said, referring to the plaintiff's pseudonym. "Jane Doe was convinced that if someone found out about she and Father Wren, that she would die and go to hell as Father Wren had warned her."

The lawsuit said the plaintiff suffered physical injuries at the time and, in more recent years, attempted suicide and was admitted for inpatient psychiatric care.

Doctors attributed her delay in reporting the abuse to "repressed memory, shame, embarrassment and fear," the lawsuit said. She first contacted Loyola administrators in 2015 and was referred to the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, who offered the woman an apology and payment of her medical bills.

Church officials were not surprised by the woman's claims and already had amassed "an extensive personnel file on Father Wren that reinforced" her contentions, the lawsuit said. It's unclear whether any other victims ever came forward.

The lawsuit said church and university officials had "superior knowledge about the risk that Father Wren posed" to the girl yet failed to intervene.  

"At no time did the defendants ever reject Jane Doe's claims of abuse," the lawsuit said, "nor did they ever reject her assertions that she was sexually abused by Father Wren."



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