Sexual abuse allegations and claims against priests in New Orleans made headlines throughout 2020, especially after the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May – a response due to the costs of their legal troubles. The bankruptcy prompted a March 1, 2021 deadline for claims against the church. Since the deadline was set, more victims have overcome their silence and fear to pursue justice for abuse at the hands of religious leaders.
The number of clergy with claims against them has grown steadily since the scandal broke, with victims coming forward about abuse and sexual advances that took place, many of them decades ago. The types of claims range from rape and molestation to sexually inappropriate letters and text messages.
In October, a survivor made abuse claims against two priests who taught at his Catholic school in the 70s. He claims the church gave him unlimited therapy, but no actions were taken against the priests at the time.
Another clergy abuse victim, Mark Vath, was compensated with $100,000 in 2018. However, he later found out the priest was not investigated for two years after his allegation and compensation.
As more claims are made, the Vatican’s involvement, or lack of involvement, has been in the spotlight. If an investigation reveals a claim to be credible, the case is supposed to be sent to Rome, where a church trial may occur. But it’s unclear whether the Archdiocese of New Orleans followed this protocol in any of its investigations.
How Priests Have Responded to Abuse Allegations
Some priests who have been accused of sexual abuse and advances have been tight-lipped in their response to media. Instead, they’ve directed journalists to the archdiocese, said the church handled it or refused comment. Others have strongly and consistently denied the allegations and supported the diocese inquiry into the claims.
Unfortunately, a significant portion of clergy who have claims against them have since passed away. While their victims will not see traditional justice, speaking out and having their abusers named may offer a meaningful measure of closure.
The Church’s Response to Abuse Claims
Throughout the scandal in New Orleans, the church has developed and continued to add names to their list of credible clergy abuse claims. There are over 70 names on the list, including a group of seven more who were added in October.
The history of clergy abuse, not just in New Orleans but across the country, shows a pattern of quietly settling with and silencing many victims while doing very little to address the priests’ actions directly.
While the abuse itself is disturbing and criminal, we’ve learned the depth of coverups by other prominent church members – those who knew but did nothing or even helped hide what happened. This has added fuel to the fire, damaged the church’s reputation, and exposed a questionable process of how abuse claims are handled.
How the Church Has Treated Victims and Accused Clergy
In New Orleans, churches frequently took matters into their own hands while successfully keeping the claims internal and out of the news. Victims were given settlements in private and without police involvement and were silenced through a lack of accountability by the church.
As survivors continue to come forward, we’ve also learned the church offered therapy to help victims but were slow in their response to address the accused. Shame and guilt are common feelings that victims experience, and the church’s inaction further isolated many.
When it comes to clergy who had claims against them, many were simply reassigned to other parishes instead of being stripped of their title and legally brought to justice. This strategy allowed many priests to continue being around children, putting others at risk.
From depression and shame to addiction and self-harm, overcoming sexual abuse is a challenge in itself. When victims are silenced, and there’s no justice or recognition of the abuse, the impact of trauma often worsens. With the March 1, 2021 deadline for abuse claims against New Orleans clergy just around the corner, we’ll soon learn to what extent the church is held accountable and how many victims bravely seek justice.
At Herman Herman & Katz, we are committed to fighting for victims of sexual abuse. If you are a victim, or if you suspect that someone you love may be a victim, it is important that you seek help. Our attorneys can answer any questions you may have and help you determine what steps need to be taken to protect your legal rights. Please call us at 844-943-7626 or schedule a free, confidential consultation before March 1, 2021, so we can make sure your voice is heard.
Soren E. Gisleson, is a Partner at Herman, Herman & Katz, L.L.C. and attorney advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.