Priest Accused of Abuse Is Reinstated
Archbishop, Panel; Removal Baseless

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
November 23, 2002

A Catholic priest removed from his Bywater parish six months ago on an allegation that he sexually abused a minor has been cleared and will return to his church immediately, the archdiocese of New Orleans said Friday.

The Rev. Luis Henao is back at Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish because Archbishop Alfred Hughes and a review board dominated by lay people found "there is not sufficient evidence to continue Father Henao on a state of administrative leave," the Rev. William Maestri said.

Hughes relieved Henao of his duties as a priest May 19. He was instructed to move out of the rectory and ordered not to celebrate Mass or the sacraments, Maestri said. He continued to receive financial support.

Henao, who was ordained in 1974, served as parochial vicar, or assistant pastor, at the parish.

Hughes first placed Henao on leave on the basis of what seemed to be a "credible" complaint, with the concurrence of the review board, Maestri said. At the same time, authorities said an internal investigation would continue.

The review board and the archbishop now believe that the evidence does not warrant Henao's removal, Maestri said.

The allegation against Henao surfaced in a review of more than 1,000 files of priests and deacons going back 50 years, Maestri said last spring.

Henao's case was one of 12 in which accusations of sexual abuse were either credible or "seemed credible" and worth further investigation, officials said then. Ten of those priests or deacons were retired or otherwise inactive; Henao and another priest, who was never identified because he did not work in a parish, were pulled from their ministries days later.

Henao also is the first New Orleans priest whom Hughes has returned to duty in consultation with a lay review board acting under the archdiocese's sex-abuse policy.

Henao's case might have been resolved sooner, had it not been for unusual circumstances, Maestri said.

Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili in September twice canceled special meetings of the review board to consider Henao's case.

The 18-member board consists of two psychologists, two social workers and two psychiatrists, among others.

Henao's removal, and his return to duty, came under a process which soon will be obsolete under changes American bishops recently approved in Washington, D.C., and which the Vatican is expected to ratify soon.

Under an administrative procedure put in place in recent years, Hughes was free to place Henao on leave and reverse that decision at his own discretion.

Under new church laws expected to take effect soon, Hughes and the review board still will be empowered to make an early judgment call on whether to remove a priest or deacon accused of sexually abusing a minor. But after that decision is made, a local bishop is unable to reverse it administratively.

Instead, the accused must invoke a church trial to clear his name -- and, even after an acquittal, bishops will have broad personal authority to keep a priest out of ministry if they think the protection of children warrants it, according to bishops who helped draft the process.

Maestri said he understood Henao wanted to return to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos immediately and assumed Henao would participate in the regular schedule of Masses on Sunday.

He said Henao had been instructed not to comment on his case; a call to the rectory went unanswered Friday night.

The archdiocese did not publicly describe the allegation when Henao was relieved, but on Friday, Maestri said it came from a single individual who said the incident occurred in 1981.

Maestri said he did not have at hand records indicating where Henao worked in 1981. A native of Latin America, Henao has extensive local experience working with Catholic Hispanics.

Maestri did not identify the person who made the complaint, but in announcing Henao's return to duty, "my prayer is with them for healing and peace," Hughes said. "I appreciate their concern and courage. I pray that we can move forward in the spirit of reconciliation."


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