Details of Accusations against Local Priest Still Scarce

By John DeSantis
Houma Today
August 28, 2007

HOUMA — An accusation of "sexual impropriety" against the pastor of a Catholic church in Houma has resulted in little information from the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux other than the promise of an investigation and an official statement that the priest is now on leave.

Diocesan officials have expressed confidence that they are meeting the policy's goal of "transparency" and that information will be forthcoming when the investigation is complete. The absence of information concerning the allegation, however, leaves the most-basic questions still unanswered.

Church officials acknowledge they are holding details close to the vest but also maintain that a written policy on how to deal with abuse allegations, revised in 2003 to conform with a national policy approved by U.S. Catholic bishops, contains the script they are following.

Sam Jacobs, bishop of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese, told parishioners at Annunziata Church this weekend that the Rev. Etienne LeBlanc, their pastor, was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, but provided few other details. Jacobs also said that LeBlanc denies the allegation.

The policy upon which the forced leave is based — titled "Policy for the Protection of Children and Young People" — includes broad confidentiality provisions, which exist for the protection of the accused and the accuser.

Diocesan spokesman Louis Aguirre said the provision takes the guesswork out of dealing with allegations for bishops, allowing them to move ahead with attempts to determine the truth of an accusation.

"It sets a blueprint for constructive action and therefore allows him to be the shepherd, to be clear with what is happening," Aguirre said, noting that reliance on the policy is what permitted Jacobs to speak directly to people attending Masses at Annunziata this weekend.

All that he told them, however, is that there is an allegation. No details have been released as to the age of the alleged victim, when or where it allegedly happened, whether he or she is now an adult and whether the act alleged amounts to anything punishable by criminal law.

According to the statement Jacobs gave at Annunziata Masses throughout the weekend, LeBlanc is undergoing a psychological evaluation while on leave, as the policy provides. LeBlanc has been Annunziata's pastor since 2004 and served at other churches throughout the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese prior to that.

The policy, on its face, requires administrative leave when accusations against volunteers, seminarians and nonpriests are found to be "of substance" following a preliminary investigation.

In the case of a priest, the policy says the diocese's vicar general "shall determine whether the safety of children requires the immediate withdrawal of the cleric from his ministerial assignment and shall promptly communicate a recommendation to the bishop."

The policy also says an accused priest "may be requested to seek, and may be urged voluntarily to comply with, an appropriate medical and psychological evaluation at a facility mutually acceptable to the diocese and to the accused."

In a written statement released Monday, the diocese announced that in accordance with the policy, "the bishop has placed Father LeBlanc on an administrative leave pending the completion of the diocesan investigation and a thorough medical and psychological evaluation. The bishop said this action does not constitute a judgment on the diocese's part."

Asked whether that means the allegation made is considered one of substance, or whether a determination was made that the safety of children required LeBlanc's leave, Aguirre said it would not be possible for him to make such an interpretation.

"We don't want to speculate as to how it applies here because to do so would be contrary to what we have said, which is that we are trying to preserve the confidentiality of the matter during the investigation," Aguirre said.

At the church's offices Monday afternoon, employees were welcoming to visitors but declined to discuss LeBlanc's tenure or the effect the allegations are having on staff or parishioners.

Members of the church's pastoral council — volunteers who help direct church activities — refused to discuss the matter as well, citing instructions from the bishop that all communication, as the policy dictates, must come from the diocese itself.

Pastoral council members — though not wishing to be quoted — said they have faith in the ability of the chancery to root out the truth and make a determination concerning their pastor.

"That's what they are there to do, that's their job," one council member said.


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