Accused Priest Suing Hughes for Defamation
Man Is Third to Seek Damages after Allegations Made Public
By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
February 11, 2005
A third New Orleans priest relieved of duty on a charge he sexually abused a child has sued Archbishop Alfred Hughes for defamation, representing a growing local backlash against Hughes' determination to take accused priests out of their pulpits after a quick evaluation of the complaints against them.
Although no one keeps track of such suits nationally, a few are beginning to emerge around the country as accused priests fight back against an internal church process they believe has swung too far against them, several observers said.
Three suits in a single diocese appears to be unusual.
"Priests feel completely abandoned by their bishops — thrown to the wolves, so to speak," said Joe Maher, a Detroit businessman who founded an organization that supports Catholic priests taken out of the ministry.
Church spokesmen, by contrast, note ruefully that while they were once criticized for acting too slowly, they are now under fire for being seen as acting too quickly. They say they have struck the right balance between protecting children and protecting priests when there are few facts to work with, only allegations and denials from each side.
"The archdiocese is attempting to lift a very, very delicate but heavy load here," said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
To deepen the paradox, on this narrow point at least, Hughes' swift action against accused priests is supported by a usual adversary, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"The idea that something injudicious was done here is just bogus," said Michael Kucszynski, a spokesman for SNAP's local chapter.
Going to court
Last week, the Rev. Gerard Kinane filed suit against Hughes in Civil District Court in New Orleans, charging Hughes with defamation, invasion of privacy and inflicting emotional distress.
Hughes last spring relieved Kinane of his priestly duties. He announced that Kinane, who was doing limited duty at St. Luke Parish in Slidell, had been accused of twice sexually abusing a child, in 1973 and 1975, while serving at St. Mark Parish in Chalmette.
Kinane's lawsuit is exactly like those filed by two predecessors, the Rev. Michael Fraser and Bernard Schmaltz. Charges that they were accused of sexually abusing minors were disclosed on the same day early last year.
It was the second time each had faced such accusations during his career.
Fraser was immediately relieved of his Marrero pulpit, and the archdiocese soon settled a civil suit arising from the first abuse charge.
Schmaltz had retired from the priesthood in the early 1990s on the publication of the first charge. A civil court later ruled that charge was too old to try. Even though he embarked on a second career selling real estate in Mississippi, he is still considered a priest, the archdiocese said.
All three men denied the charges against them, new and old. They reiterated those denials in filing defamation claims against Hughes.
Ordinarily, the relationship between priest and bishop is deeper and more textured than a mere employer-employee relationship.
Bound up in the Catholic definition of bishop is the notion that he is a father to his priests, paternally concerned about their physical and spiritual well-being.
But as a measure of the breakdown between Hughes and the three plaintiffs, the men think Hughes is "grandstanding" at their expense, seeking to repair his reputation as a former aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, said their attorney, Arthur "Buddy" Lemann. Law resigned in December 2002 amid the controversy.
"This archbishop figures he can grandstand. He can throw these priests to the wolves . . . and make him look like a good guy, to cover up his own past," Lemann said.
Lemann said he believes, and that his clients agree, that further church trials are stacked against them because Hughes has already announced his opinion.
"They're not stupid," he said. "This is like the Queen of Hearts in 'Alice in Wonderland': sentence first, trial later."
As a matter of law, in suing for defamation the three will have to prove the charges against them are false, or that Hughes knew them to be false and acted recklessly in airing them.
All of the men are prepared to prove their innocence, Lemann said.
In many states, such suits would never make it far; under the First Amendment, courts tend to give all churches great leeway in handling internal disputes, said Patrick Schiltz, a professor at the University of St. Thomas law school with wide experience defending dioceses and priests in sexual abuse cases.
"I think most judges would say the bishop had good reason to be honest and forthcoming in his response to the allegation. If he's saying there's an allegation, here's the content, here's how we're going to handle it, it would be hard to find fault with that," he said.
But the archdiocese thus far has lost that argument.
A lower court has accepted the Schmaltz suit for trial, and the archdiocese's appeals up to the Louisiana Supreme Court have let that ruling stand. Lemann's Fraser and Kinane suits are identical.
Lemann contends that Hughes' public announcements in the cases of Schmaltz, Fraser and Kinane went beyond protected internal business because they were broadcast far outside the walls of their congregations.
Better, he said, if Hughes had pulled the men out of duty without disclosing the reasons, let a church judicial process unwind, then announce the findings.
"But they told the pagans, they told the Jews, they told the Baptists, they told the world. That's precisely why the court has held thus far that I have a cause of action," Lemann said.
Schiltz said the church's response to that "is that recent history has taught us the impact of clergy sex abuse spreads far beyond one parish. It's not only common for there to be other victims in that parish, but victims in other parishes as well...To just announce it in the church isn't reasonably calculated to reach those other folks. You need broader dissemination."
Dallas changes criticized
Meanwhile, inside the church there is debate whether accused priests are getting a fair shake in the changes American bishops developed at a 2002 meeting in Dallas to address the crisis.
Lynne Hefti, a friend of Fraser's who believes he is being wronged, recently circulated hundreds of letters among his former parishioners directing them to a new advocacy group for priests, Maher's Opus Bono Sacerdotii — or Work for the Good of the Priesthood.
Hefti said she thinks priests are being steamrolled under the changes wrought in Dallas. Many are getting wildly varying definitions of due process from diocese to diocese, she said.
"There's no definition for what 'credible' evidence is. It differs from bishop to bishop," she said.
But Maestri said that in all the cases, church law and local archdiocesan policy were scrupulously followed: To be considered at all, a complaint first must show "a semblance of truth" in the words of the archdiocesan policy.
In recent months, "semblance of truth" has come to replace "credible" as the phrase of choice in describing a complaint that has knocked a priest out of the pulpit.
Church officials elsewhere have described "semblance of truth" as a rather low standard. Some have said it means, at minimum, determining whether a complaint was at least possible because it generally fit with a priest's assignment at the time.
Later, accuser and accused are interviewed, Maestri said. A written report is prepared for Hughes and an 18-member review board dominated by lay people. Hughes must weigh the review board's recommendation, but it is for him alone to decide whether to send a case to Rome with a recommendation for what amounts to prosecution in a church tribunal.
At the beginning of the process, however, the policy acknowledges Hughes' authority to remove a priest temporarily while the local investigative process progresses.
Hughes did that in the case of Lemann's clients — and, as Maestri pointed out, relayed to the public their claims of innocence in announcing he was taking them out of service.
Throughout the process, Hughes and the review board are using "semblance of truth" as their standard for judgment, Maestri said.
Whatever its merits, the process has left thousands of priests "disheartened," said Maher, who runs the priest advocacy group.
Maher said he talks to a dozen priests and fields a hundred e-mails from priests every day.
His group, with 12 full-time volunteers who are suspended priests, puts accused priests in touch with lawyers, sends some a little financial support and offers them moral and spiritual support.
"Actually, we advise them against suing the bishop," he said. "I don't think it helps a priest's reputation anymore, and it certainly doesn't help the lay faithful when they see priests suing bishops.
"But I completely understand when a priest goes that route. They feel like there's nothing left to do."
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