Beset by clergy abuse claims, New Orleans archdiocese hopeful church can 'heal,' touts donor help

By Ramon Antonio Vargas And Jerry Dicolo
New Orleans (LA)
August 3, 2019

Archbishop Gregory Aymond at his office at the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Monday, June 24, 2019.

[with video]

Steve Gegenheimer had struggled for decades to process what happened to him — in a rectory, in a parked car, in the woods and in hotels in Mississippi — over a two-year period in the 1970s, when he was a teenage altar boy on the West Bank.

In November, the priest he says sexually abused him decades ago was publicly named as a suspected child molester by New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Days later, Gegenheimer finally called a lawyer.

Over the next five months, at the archdiocese’s request, Gegenheimer wrote out a narrative explaining the abuse. He filled out a detailed questionnaire. He met with diocesan attorneys over several hours one emotionally draining day.

And after signing settlement documents that resulted in an undisclosed payment, he received a letter inviting him to speak and pray with the archbishop himself.

Gegenheimer had not taken up Aymond on his offer when he spoke about the experience this summer, but he said the invitation and payment — taken together — helped him to finally move past his abuse.

“You … carry a secret for 30, 40 years,” said Gegenheimer, who later became a priest but left the clergy after entering into a relationship with a woman whom he ultimately married. “I wanted it to be over.”

The pastoral letter to Gegenheimer was one of many Aymond has sent in the year since a Pennsylvania grand jury detailed hundreds of undisclosed cases of clergy abuse and reignited the long-simmering priest-abuse scandal across the U.S.

The report prompted dozens of bishops to finally release full lists of clergymen in their dioceses who had been credibly accused of abusing children. Aymond, who was also dealing with a spiraling scandal surrounding disgraced deacon George Brignac, elected to release his list for the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Nov. 2.

After revealing that 57 credibly accused clergy — a number since bumped up to 61 — had at one time served in New Orleans, Aymond has devoted much of his time to dealing with the fallout. He has met with abuse survivors and taken angry calls from parishioners — as well as supportive ones, he says — all toward what he described as a mission to “heal” the church.

“I’ve learned in a new way what some of the survivors go through,” Aymond said in a lengthy interview with The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate in which he offered new details on his year dealing with the crisis as well as his thoughts on how the church can move forward.

“It’s one cross, but we’re all carrying it,” he said, likening the church and the abuse crisis to Jesus Christ and his path to crucifixion. “There is hope in resurrection.”

Aymond’s list and how he deals with the abuse crisis will likely define his legacy as the leader of New Orleans’ half-million Catholics, a role he has held for a decade. He acknowledged that a restoration of trust in church leaders is still far off, and admitted that the damage from the abuse — which peaked in the church decades ago — may outlive him.

“I’m 69. I don’t know if it will be in my lifetime. It depends on how long the Lord will give me. But it will take some time,” he said.

Some community leaders have praised his work so far, even if the wounds remain raw.

Since November, Gegenheimer and at least 30 others have lodged formal complaints against the church over decades-old abuse, either privately through settlement talks or via lawsuits against the archdiocese.

Last year, the archdiocese told its creditors it has put aside as much as $8.5 million for potential settlements because of sexual misdeeds allegedly committed by clergy against children.

“That tells me they are expecting a lot of settlements,” said Jack Ruhl, who studies the finances of U.S. Catholic dioceses as a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University. In his experience, the full amount set aside, and sometimes more, is usually paid out.

The potential settlements add to the already strained finances of the local church. In the last fiscal year, the archdiocese lost $14 million on its operations, a 47 percent jump from the previous year, in large part due to higher insurance costs. As of December, the gap between the archdiocese’s assets and its liabilities was down to $65 million, $10 million less than a year earlier.

In June 2018, because of financial issues, the archdiocese was required by its creditors to hire a management consultant, Bourgeois Bennett, to review its finances and make recommendations.

Growing signs of strain

There are other signs of financial and operational strains.

Local Catholic school enrollment has fallen by more than 6 percent since 2015. Two parochial schools — St. Peter Claver in Treme and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Norco — were closed at the end of the last academic year. Two others, Holy Rosary in Uptown and Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie, will merge.

Church leaders have long maintained that the closures are being driven by falling enrollment and monetary challenges particular to the schools rather than financial issues tied to the abuse crisis.

The archdiocese couldn’t provide specific figures on church attendance or donations, but Aymond said there have been no drastic cuts in donations or attendance at Mass, and he sees hopeful signs.

“We just ordained eight priests a few weeks ago. Over 350 people were welcomed into the church at Easter,” he said. “The renewal and credibility of the church is that we keep doing what’s at the core of our mission.”

But there are strong headwinds nonetheless. A June survey by the Pew Research Center found that because of the abuse crisis, one-fourth of Catholics across the U.S. had cut back on Mass attendance and donations. Some likely have done so because they are unwilling to help underwrite abuse settlements.

Ruhl and others argue that parishioners eventually bear the brunt of any such settlements, either through reduced services or via increased assessments made on the donations they give to local parishes. “At the end of the day, when the archdiocese makes the assessments of the parishes, the money is all coming from the parishioners,” Ruhl said.

Aymond, however, vowed that no parishioner money is being used to pay settlements, and that no parish properties, schools or archdiocesan assets were being sold to fund them.

With seemingly only donations and existing assets available to pay claims not covered by insurance, Aymond said he has been able to turn to a third source: benefactors of the archdiocese who have offered to contribute money to pay those abused by priests.

“There are people who have offered to help because they see the pain people are going through, and they want to be a part of their healing,” Aymond said.

He declined to say how many people had made these offers or in what amounts.

A full accounting

While things are less dire in New Orleans than in some other U.S. dioceses, attorneys for the local church have been involved in making dozens of private settlements while fighting at least 13 claims pursued in Civil District Court over the past year.

Only two of those claims — brought against Brignac, the ousted deacon and suspected child molester — have since resulted in settlements. The rest are pending and could eventually result in significant financial damages.

The majority of the claims are against those on the list of "credibly accused" clergymen that the archdiocese released in November.

Almost all of the plaintiffs are represented by a legal team led by attorneys John Denenea and Richard Trahant.

Court records contain hints about how much more combative those disputes are than claims going through the church’s mediation process. Attorneys for the church have cut no corners in litigating those disputes, filing objections to various technical aspects of the lawsuits.

In one case, a judge overruled 13 of 14 objections lodged by the church's lawyers. That didn’t dissuade the attorneys from filing many of the same objections in a separate suit, prompting Denenea to issue a statement accusing the archdiocese of behaving like “a big company” rather than a pastoral institution.

Filings from the team led by Denenea and Trahant, in turn, show the plaintiffs are pushing for as complete an accounting as possible of what church officials knew about the abuse crisis and when they knew it.

In one client’s case, they issued a subpoena that unlocked a trove of internal church documents. The records showed how Brignac was able to become a deacon in 1976 despite being unable to explain his dismissal from the Christian Brothers order several years earlier, and becoming defensive over the topic when quizzed about it.

Brignac stood trial in 1978 in Jefferson Parish on three charges of indecent behavior with a juvenile, though he was ultimately acquitted. He wouldn’t be removed from the ministry until 1988, when New Orleans police arrested him on allegations of fondling a boy at a Christmas party.

The documents Trahant and Denenea obtained included a letter that then-Archbishop Philip Hannan sent to Brignac’s defense attorney after a case targeting Brignac was dismissed by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. “I am deeply grateful to you for your excellent work in this case and your wonderful support of Deacon Brignac,” wrote Hannan, who died in 2011.

While records show attempts at the time to reinstate Brignac as a deacon were turned down by Archbishop Francis Schulte, who succeeded Hannan, Brignac was allowed to read at Masses at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Metairie until last year.

Also until recently, as the Associated Press reported this past week, Brignac held leadership roles with the Knights of Columbus, delivering a lecture to children and picking out costumes for them during a 2017 celebration of the Feast of Fatima, records showed.

In a statement Friday, Richard Windmann — who last year went public about being molested at Jesuit High School as a teenager in the 1970s and is now a spokesman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests — said, "This is just the latest example of how Catholic leadership continues to talk a big game publicly, but privately does not do all they can to ensure accused perpetrators are kept from the vulnerable." 

'I had to get it out'

Another plaintiffs’ attorney deeply enmeshed in the clergy abuse crisis is Roger Stetter, who says he has handled more than 100 sexual-misconduct claims against the archdiocese.

He and his clients have opted to resolve the vast majority of those cases through a private mediation process that keeps the claims out of court and has the potential to get victims compensation more quickly.

Stetter has likely never been busier than in the past year. According to his estimate, during that time, the archdiocese has paid out more than $4.5 million in settlements to 24 of his clients who brought forth new allegations of sexual misconduct by clergymen.

Gegenheimer is one of his clients. The former clergyman recounted in a questionnaire how he was a ninth-grade altar boy at now-shuttered St. Julian Eymard Church in Algiers in 1973 when priest James Kircher began molesting him.

From then until 1975, on about 20 occasions, Kircher would force him to perform oral sex and other acts, Gegenheimer wrote. The abuses occurred at his parents’ house, the clergyman’s car, St. Julian’s rectory, in the woods near Lumberton, Mississippi, and in hotels on the Gulf Coast, he said.

His abuser’s profession didn’t dissuade Gegenheimer from realizing his dream of becoming a priest. He served as a high-ranking Marist for several years, despite struggling with depression, anxiety and alcoholism. But Gegenheimer said he ultimately left the priesthood after falling in love with a woman and marrying her. He later pursued a second career in human resources management.

Another of Stetter’s clients, Ralph Brunet, 83, of Terrebonne Parish, came forward last year with some of the longest-buried new claims. For nine months in 1948, when he was a 12-year-old altar boy, Brunet said, a priest named Jerome Roppolo penetrated him with his fingers and forced him to perform oral sex in the sacristy of a chapel in Dularge, then under the control of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Brunet said he thought about just dying with his secret. But when the November list was released and made him realize how the issue of clergy abuse has persisted for so long, he decided to seek an acknowledgement from the church.

Like Gegenheimer, Brunet received a financial settlement more quickly than he would have by pressing a lawsuit.

The process was hardly pleasant, however. Aside from writing down in detail how Roppolo molested him and answering questions from officials whose initial settlement offers are universally considered low by survivors, Brunet suffered a heart attack on the way to one negotiation session and was hospitalized for a time.

Nonetheless, he was glad he chose the route that he did.

“It’s hard to believe a priest could do something like that — he’s supposed to practice what he preaches,” Brunet said. “But it didn’t happen that way. … The church betrayed me.

“All the bull**** I had going on in my head (because of Roppolo), I had to get it out.”

’We’re here for you'

Tania Tetlow’s thoughts on the clergy abuse crisis are complicated.

A former federal prosecutor and past director of a domestic violence clinic at Tulane University, Tetlow was deeply involved in helping the New Orleans Police Department implement reforms to its child abuse and sexual violence investigation unit.

She was a few months into her tenure as the first lay president of Loyola University, the Uptown college run by Jesuits, when that order in December revealed that 19 of its dead or inactive members with New Orleans-area ties were suspected molesters.

Tetlow said she knows from her past work how traumatic the abuse is for survivors.

She knows Aymond is also in an unenviable but crucial position when he meets with those survivors.

“It is … incredibly difficult … emotionally exhausting work … to try to take on people’s pain and hope you can make things even a tiny bit better by listening to their rage or their sorrow,” said Tetlow, whose uncle is a Jesuit priest and whose father was one before he left the order to start a family.

Her wish now is that some of the safeguards that the church began adopting after the crisis exploded in 2002 would spread to other fields. Among the church’s key innovations, in Tetlow’s view: deep background checks for archdiocesan employees who work with children in parochial schools, psychological screening done on prospective priests and zero-tolerance policies for sexual misconduct.

“The reality is that child sex abuse is depressingly common in any institution that involves power over children,” said Tetlow, noting that abuse has plagued athletics, public schools, the Boy Scouts and countless families. “In the Catholic Church, those painful lessons have been learned, and my hope is that more institutions will learn about how best to grapple with the horrifying truth that this is a problem across society, and it needs to stop now.”

New Orleans civic leader Anne Milling said she was thankful Aymond hasn’t steered the archdiocese away from supporting various nonprofits as it continues grappling with the abuse crisis. She highlighted how the archdiocese has remained committed to supporting Project Lazarus’ efforts to provide housing to people with HIV and AIDS as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank’s mission to feed those facing hunger.

“This is a scar on the institution of the Catholic Church, no question — it’s a major scar,” Milling said.

But, seconding Tetlow’s thoughts on the safeguards aimed at preventing new instances of clergy abuse, Milling, a devout Catholic, continued: “I think the church will survive this and be a better institution and a better community.”

Aymond echoed both women.

“I have no doubt the church is being renewed by this. When sin becomes public, you have to empty yourself," he said. “God can fill us with a renewed spirit.”

He said the Catholic Church intends to still be there for people, whether they are angry at its leaders because of the crisis or yearning for spiritual help with other problems.

“Those who may be angry … let’s talk — could you give us a chance for what we’ve done wrong?” Aymond said. “To those who are struggling … (who are) poor, (have) broken marriages, problems with kids, addictions, we’re here for you. With all this, we’re here for you, and we’re not going anywhere.”



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