Retired, Credibly Accused New Orleans Priests Get Back Medical Benefits; Pensions Still Halted
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate
May 20, 2020
The federal judge overseeing the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ bankruptcy case on Wednesday ordered the church to reinstate medical benefits for retired priests faced with credible child sexual molestation allegations but to continue withholding their stipends for living expenses.
U.S. District Judge Meredith Grabill had issued an order that effectively suspended all payments to such priests three days after the archdiocese’s May 1 filing for bankruptcy protection. But she amended her mandate after retired clergyman Gerard Howell, 80, argued that her initial ruling amounted to “a death sentence” for him.
Howell, who was suspected of molesting children growing up in the state’s deaf community during the 1960s and 1970s, told Grabill he was displeased only a portion of his benefits were restored.
“I’m making a petition to overrule that! … It seems punitive,” Howell, who was not represented by an attorney, said to Grabill. “Oh, Lord.”
As the judge adjourned the 75-minute, telephone hearing, attorney Richard Trahant — who represents clergy-abuse claimants and had asked Grabill to abide by her initial ruling — mockingly repeated the word “punitive.”
This particular dispute turns on the archdiocese’s long-standing practice of providing a monthly stipend, rent assistance, medical co-payments, and health as well as auto insurance to retired priests, even ones whose retirements were forced by child abuse allegations deemed credible. Such benefits — which, for elderly priests, can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipend payments alone — mirror those offered by other U.S. dioceses.
The New Orleans archdiocese for years said it had obligations under civil and “canonical” law to provide those payments to all retired priests.
But after it filed for bankruptcy protections amid numerous clergy abuse lawsuits and the coronavirus pandemic, the archdiocese implemented Grabill’s order to halt payments to credibly accused priests.
Trahant’s co-counsel, Davin Boldissar, repeatedly urged Grabill to keep that order in place Wednesday, arguing among other things that canonical law was irrelevant in bankruptcy court.
Howell and another retired, credibly accused clergyman, Paul Calamari, pushed for Grabill to reverse her ruling. Howell on Wednesday told Grabill the only way he could treat his heart and various other medical conditions was through his archdiocesan coverage. He complained that he had “paid into” the church’s retirement plan and needed it back to avoid being evicted from the senior retirement home where he lived.
“For me, this is a death sentence,” said Howell, who along with Calamari was on the archdiocese's November 2018 list of credibly-accused clergymen. “Please reconsider reinstating my benefit.”
An attorney for the 76-year-old Calamari, who says his client’s retirement was precipitated by a pre-ordination “sin” he committed with a high schooler whom he mistakenly believed was of age, largely argued a lack of due process to Grabill.
Calamari’s lawyer, Evan Howell, said the promised benefits were nixed without priests being afforded a full hearing to defend themselves. Gerard Howell and Calamari’s attorney each said they supported clergy abuse claimants’ receiving whatever they are owed.
Church bankruptcy attorney Mark Mintz told Grabill that the priests’ retirement plan was not “akin to a 401K,” in which clergymen would pay into it and then have money on deposit at the archdiocese. Mintz said the plan instead comprised a series of benefits rooted in contracts, church rules and civil law which it took seriously — but which are not governed by something like a collective bargaining agreement.
Grabill asked Mintz if the archdiocese could "alter" those benefits at will. Mintz replied, “I believe so, your honor."
Grabill nonetheless pointed to a section of federal law which calls for organizations seeking bankruptcy protection to maintain retirees’ medical-related payments. She said she would change her first order on the matter to ensure it complied with that provision but denied reinstating the full benefits.
Meanwhile, records filed Wednesday revealed that a committee representing the unsecured creditors in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case will include clergy abuse claimants and Hancock Whitney Bank, which has managed more than $38 million in state facilities bonds that helped the local Catholic Church rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
Records only identified one representative on the seven-member committee: Beth Zeigler of Hancock Whitney. The rest of the names were redacted, suggesting that the committee’s balance might be comprised of people who claim they were sexually molested by New Orleans-area clergymen and religious personnel.
The records said Grabill previously ordered the confidentiality of clergy abuse claimants’ names. But to facilitate the committee’s work, an attorney with the U.S. Trustee’s Office — which helps oversee bankruptcy cases — requested Wednesday that the redacted group members’ names be unsealed.
Grabill late Wednesday had not ruled on that request, which noted the committee members’ consented to being identified.