A church is designed to be a place of sanctuary – a family for those who have none, a shelter in the storm, somewhere to find peace.
Unfortunately, it has become the exact opposite for thousands of victims of sexual abuse by their priests.
The first real evidence of abuse by clergy members swept the Roman Catholic church in the early 2000s. A national charter, called the Dallas Charter, was created by American bishops as a place for abuse reporting and prevention. Some members advocated for each of the accused to be publicly called out and permanently banned from the church.
But mostly, what happened was priests were simply defrocked – or stripped of their religious status – and allowed to return to being regular citizens. Thousands of them went on to live and work in everyday society, in jobs that allowed them to be alone with children or even counsel children who had been abused by others, and homes that had no restrictions from schools or playgrounds. Some even became foster parents or found work in different churches. A stunning 2019 Associated Press investigation found that nearly 1,700 clergy members who had been accused of sexual abuse faced no real roadblocks into going right back into positions of trust.
It wasn’t until a grand jury report released by Pennsylvania in 2018, which named more than 300 priests in that state who had been accused of abusing more than 1,000 children over seven decades, that more and more dioceses began coming forward with lists of the accused.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” said the report.
Bishops covered up the abuse, so criminal charges were not filed as they would be in a typical child sex offender case.
The lists were mostly names without any helpful information, such as where they’re living now or their current status within the church. There still exists today a disturbing lack of documentation and accountability of these crimes.
The Washington Post article about the 2018 report highlighted some particularly horrifying examples, just a small sampling of cases and thousands more still have not come to light.
One young boy in Pittsburgh was forced to pose for nude photos as Jesus on the cross; another was raped so forcefully and so many times that his spine was permanently injured, leading to a painkiller addiction that led to an overdose death.
But the statute of limitations meant that many of those instances were too old to be criminally prosecuted. Undoubtedly, this is the case for most of the abuse, as it has been so covered up.
How investigations into priest abuse began
Although priest abuse has been happening for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that any real investigation began. That happened in Ireland. It was revealed that covering up abuse in churches, schools and orphanages was just a widely accepted part of diocese culture and also by local law enforcement. The scandal was brought to U.S. attention when The Boston Globe reported about it in 2002. Many of Boston’s offending priests avoided prosecution when their bishops paid victims off or simply sent them to counseling.
The most extensive report to date on this scandal was done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which found that over 52 years, an astonishing 4,300 active Catholic clergymen in the U.S. had been accused of abuse by over 10,000 people. Less than 400 were convicted and/or served prison time.
Priest abuse in the New Orleans area
And this year, an enormous scandal with scores of related stories that began more than two years ago has continued to rock New Orleans.
In 2018, the Archdiocese of New Orleans released a list of clergymen accused of sexual abuse. That list has since grown to over 75 names. Another 49 Archdiocese clergy have been identified who had allegations of sexual assault made against them in court or to the Archdiocese itself but who the Archdiocese has refused to place on its list.
The Archdiocese is the largest known employer of pedophiles in the New Orleans area in the City’s 300 year history.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who allegedly knew what was happening for decades and said nothing, has said he wants the scandal brought to a conclusion. Because many of the clergy on the list passed away years ago and dozens of clergy are still being omitted from the list, justice will be impossible to grant to every victim.
The Archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has used that to show that the scandal has caused them extreme financial distress.
Eyewitness journalist David Hammer of WWL-TV has written over 20 articles related to the scandal, proving itself to be much more widespread than initially thought.
Although courts have started to fight back against attempts to cover up the scandal, the church has continually tried to keep accused priests out of the spotlight and safe from prosecution. For example, two elderly priests whom the church admitted were “probably” child molesters. Those two were ultimately ordered by a judge to be deposed.
Another accused, Reverend Patrick Wattigny, allegedly admitted to the Archdiocese that he sexually abused a minor back in 2013 after he was found in 2020 to have sent inappropriate text messages to a student.
Priest Carl Davidson allegedly began abusing young boys over 30 years ago but was only sent for psychological treatment. After victim Ricky Monsour came forward to accuse him in 2004, it was revealed that the church paid him $106,000 to stay quiet.
The stories go on and on.
Deadline for New Orleans sex abuse victims to come forward
In September of this year, a federal bankruptcy judge issued a deadline of March 1, 2021, for victims to formally claim abuse against the Archdiocese if they hope to receive financial damages. Claims made will be filed into the bankruptcy confidentially without having the survivor’s name revealed to the public, if someone choses. This deadline may represent the last time a sexual abuse survivor may learn what the Archdiocese knew, when it knew it, and what it did with that information. This knowledge, and the availability of compensation, are important steps toward healing and closure.
What to do if you have been a victim of sexual abuse by a priest or other religious figure?
First and foremost, don’t try to contact the church or your abuser. See a doctor if you haven’t already. Tell him or her exactly what happened, and seek their recommended treatment. Keep copies of those records and detailed personal notes of your experience or things that have been used in the abuse, like texts or clothing. While painful, it can make all the difference in a strong case.
Herman Herman and Katz has significant experience in sexual abuse cases. We and our litigation partners represented more than 80% of filed cases against the Archdiocese of New Orleans at the time it filed bankruptcy. If you’d like to add yours, we can assure you that your identity and story will be kept 100% confidential until you decide to take legal action.
Admitting that you have been sexually abused can be terrifying and make you feel afraid or ashamed. These feelings are normal, but our attorneys will be with you every step of the way. We will not do anything without your permission, and we will never pressure you to file a claim. We simply want to help you decide what to do next. Please call us at 844-943-7626 or schedule your free, confidential consultation whenever you’re ready.
Soren E. Gisleson, is a Partner at Herman, Herman & Katz, L.L.C. and attorney advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.