In New Orleans, More Quietly Settled, Decades-old Catholic Church Sex Abuse Cases Surface
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
September 21, 2018
More cases have surfaced involving quietly settled, decades-old sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Church in New Orleans, naming a pair of diocesan priests as well as an educator.
Three separate, unnamed plaintiffs pursued claims against Malcolm Strassel, a priest who served at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in New Orleans; Michael Fraser, a priest assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Church; and Nolan Delatte, an educator who worked at St. Pius X School, according to documents filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.
Records show the disputes were resolved in 2009, and the attorney representing the plaintiffs Felecia Peavy said Thursday that all of the claims resulted in undisclosed monetary settlements for her clients.
However, despite past pledges to be open and transparent following the sexual abuse scandal that devastated the Catholic Church in 2002, the Archdiocese of New Orleans did not notify local Catholics of the claims against Strassel or Delatte, which date back decades but which Peavy said were deemed to be credible.
Archdiocese attorney Wendy Vitter said Thursday that the administration, led at the time by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, did not notify the public of the claims against Strassel and Delatte because both had died by then and the allegations dated back to the 1960s and 1970s.
As for Fraser, Vitter said, the archdiocese had publicized its decision to remove him from ministry years earlier after he faced unrelated allegations of sexual abuse involving a parish in Pearl River.
Vitter said Hughes later also notified congregants at St. Raphael of the allegations involving their parish. It wasn't immediately clear whether that was before or after the disposal of the case. It doesn't appear the St. Raphael claims were reported in the news media before Thursday.
Local archdiocesan officials in the past have been loathe to draw attention to sexual abuse claims against clerics who are dead or out of ministry, saying that they are no longer considered to be threats.
But groups such as SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, have long criticized that policy, saying the wide disclosure of allegations typically results in more victims stepping forward who could benefit from therapeutic and spiritual counseling.
Longtime Times-Picayune religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who spent years covering SNAP and the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis, said the church's notification practices do not always seem to comply with what was intended by nearly 300 American bishops who met in Dallas in the early 2000s to draft a charter aimed at shielding children from abuse and rooting out cover-ups of predatory clergy.
The whole ethic of agreeing to be more public is to signal to people that its now safe to come forward about whoever it may be alive or dead, Nolan said of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The Advocate uncovered information about the settlements of claims naming Strassel, Fraser and Delatte because they came out of a civil case that also targeted the Rev. Donald Dickerson, who is now dead.
Dickerson was involved in one of three cases rooted in allegations of sexual abuse at Jesuit High School in the 1970s, when he was a teacher studying to become a priest. Those claims handled by local officials of the Jesuit order rather than the Archdiocese of New Orleans all resulted in financial settlements as well.
Multiple people have contacted The Advocate since stories on the newly unveiled cases first appeared, saying they were also sexually abused by the men. Some said they had not yet come forward because they were unsure they would be believed or because they thought they were the only victim.
Echoing comments he made a day earlier to nola.com, Archbishop Gregory Aymond Hughes successor told The Advocate on Friday that he and other Louisiana bishops were discussing the possibility of releasing the names of clergy members statewide with credible allegations of abuse against them.
Dioceses in other states, including in Pennsylvania, New York and Arkansas, have recently released such lists, according to media reports.
Aymond told The Advocate that the policy change isn't definite and that a release of names wouldn't happen anytime soon. He said such a release would first require personal conversations with those against whom allegations will be disclosed. He also said it would be particularly tricky to disclose allegations against dead clergymen, who wouldn't have the opportunity to explain themselves to internal and law enforcement authorities who probe such matters.
"If we do it, we want to do it correctly and in the spirit of justice," Aymond said.
Nonetheless, he said he would be open to disclosing credible allegations against the dead because "the most important person in all of this is the victim that they find a sense of justice and healing."
The Advocate months ago reported how the archdiocese had settled several claims of abuse involving defrocked Metairie deacon George Brignac without following its own guidelines to publicly report such a matter. The church alerted parishioners about the claims against Brignac who is still alive only after the newspaper reported on them.
Fraser, among other things, was accused of fondling the genitals of one boy while he was at St. Raphael the Archangel in about 1983.
Delatte was accused of raping a boy on multiple occasions over several months, beginning in 1962, while teaching at St. Pius X.
And Strassel was accused of fondling the genitals of a boy while he was a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Uptown New Orleans from 1969 through 1971, according to court records.
In court documents, Peavy argues that the statute of limitations on the cases had not lapsed because church officials had worked in concert to conceal the abuse for years.
Public records available online show two men with the name Nolan Delatte and ties to New Orleans died in the mid-1990s. Strassel, who later attained the prestigious church title of monsignor, died in 1987, those records show.
Hughes removed Fraser from ministry in 2004 after learning of an allegation that he sexually abused a child at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Pearl River in the mid-1980s, according to a report at the time in The Times-Picayune.
Fraser sued Hughes the following year, accusing the archbishop of defaming him and violating due process rights afforded to him by church policy.
A 69-year-old man named Michael Fraser who once listed a home address on the same street as Sts. Peter and Paul Church appears to be living in Texas, online public records show.
St. Raphael the Archangel merged with two other parishes after Hurricane Katrina to become Transfiguration of Our Lord. Our Lady of Lourdes was closed after Katrina, and the building was sold.