Bishop mulls releasing list of allegations against priests

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October 17, 2018
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October 17, 2018
VOW festival presented music and a message
October 17, 2018
Make sure your voice is heard
October 17, 2018

The Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux is among Louisiana clerical leaders considering release of a list containing past allegations against current and former priests who have been accused of sexual abuses, diocesan officials have confirmed.

The Most Rev. Shelton Fabre and Louisiana’s other four bishops, in a conference held last week, discussed the potential for such unprecedented disclosures, and how they might be managed.

Roman Catholic diocese in various regions have begun releasing such lists, at a time when the church in the U.S. is seeking to rebuild confidence among the faithful, and those who have lost or are questioning their faith, as scandals of global proportions grab international headlines.

“As things continue to unfold across the nation with allegations of child sex abuse, we see where some diocese have been subpoenaed by their state attorneys general to hand over lists,” said the Very Rev. Mark Toups, Vicar General of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese. “Some diocese are kind of waiting for that to happen. Some are more proactive … We have to do a better job of not covering up in the future, to establish trust and assure the people in the pews that we are not hiding anything, as we live in a posture of transparency and zero tolerance.”

Last week the Archdiocese of Indianapolis released a list of priests “credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.”

The local FOX News affiliate there reported that the list included 19 diocesan priests, and four who were members of religious orders. The allegations in Indianapolis were reported as stretching back to the 1940s.

Diocese in California, Ohio and Pennsylvania are also among those who have either released such lists or are in the final stages of preparing to do so.

In New Orleans, His Excellency Archbishop Gregory Aymond has preached repentance on the part of himself and other church officials and is also reported as mulling release of a list. New Orleans and its vicinity has been the site of several high profile instances of serial abuse by priests and other religious, including the infamous mass abuses both physical and sexual that occurred at the Madonna Manor orphanage and an affiliated institution, Hope Haven.

If New Orleans releases its records, then any accusations stemming from what is now the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux — but which were reported before the young diocese’ existence — would be included, church officials said.

Father Toups, in a Monday interview, said that any list released by the Houma-Thibodaux diocese would be restricted to allegations that would have come after its 1977 founding.

“If there was a case of abuse in any of our current parishes prior to 1977 that would be a priest who would have been in the archdiocese,” Toups said.

Any decision to release lists would likely emanate from each individual diocese, rather than as one all-inclusive gesture.

“The conversation that happened last week among the Louisiana bishops dealt with an opportunity for each of the diocese to learn a lot more about what other diocese who are considering this are doing, to hear what is happening across the country and to give each bishop enough information to each make his own decision,” Toups said.

Disclosures will be made of situations that were or are now regarded as “credible” in the eyes of church officials. Among the issue clerics must deal with is how to handle cases where priests were accused of abuse but no longer living. Toups said complications could exist where an allegation is made against a priest when he was serving in one diocese, but who is now serving somewhere else. Such details, he said, are among those that will require decisions as the diocese moves closer to action.

In the Houma-Thibodaux diocese, Toups said, surprises concerning who might be included on a list are not likely. There have been several prosecutions of attempted criminal prosecutions against priests in this area in the past, or well-publicized settlements in civil cases. What may come as new information could concern some of those priests, but from complainants whose stories have not been fully told, nor acknowledged by the diocese in the past.

Etienne LeBlanc was removed from ministry at Annunziata Church in Houma following allegations in 2007 that he had molested a former altar boy over a period of years in St. Mary Parish. Church officials engaged in negotiations with the victims’ attorney. Civil authorities punted the criminal complaint that arose from the allegation. The district attorney at the time deferred to local police, who had taken a complaint, and the police said they were deferring to the district attorney, who took no action on his own.

Prior cases include that of Robert Melancon, convicted of aggravated rape in Terrebonne Parish in 1996. He is still serving a life sentence.

Former District Attorney Doug Greenburg threatened to charge the bishop at that time, Michael Jarrell, with a contempt charge for allegedly refusing to provide information concerning other potential cases.

A priest who was an aide to Jarrell, Albert Bergeron, entered a guilty plea to charges that he lied to a grand jury that was looking into the Melancon matter.

A Raceland pastor was suspended in connection with an “incident of impropriety” concerning solicitation, said to have occurred prior to his ordination. A priest at St. Bernadette Church, Alexander Francisco, was accused in 2002 of inappropriate actions with a teenager. The allegation, while reported to church authorities, was not reported to police.

A priest at Holy Cross Church in Morgan City, Patrick Kujawa, who had testified at the Melancon criminal trial, pleaded guilty in 2000 to federal charges involving possession of child pornography. No public accusations of actual abuse have been made, to anyone’s current knowledge, concerning Kujawa.

In August, Bishop Fabre released a public statement acknowledging the damage abuse at the hands of clergy has done to the church and its people.

“Recent events regarding the response of leaders in the Church to situations and allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of minors and adults by clergy have again caused great anguish, concern, anger and confusion amongst the faithful,” Bishop Fabre’s statement reads. “For many, these events have reopened old wounds, and broken hearts anew. I count myself among those who have dealt with such feelings over these past few weeks. Careful investigation, response and resolution are necessary. I am grateful for the most recent action of Pope Francis with regard to these matters. However, even with these actions, I realize that nothing can fully alleviate the pain of those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of those who lead or minister in the Church.”

In his statement the bishop promised transparency, and sought prayers from the faithful for the ability of himself and other church leaders to appropriately respond to what remains a credibility crisis within the church. He also encouraged those who may have been victims to come forward and contact the diocese.

As the diocese nears a decision regarding a list, Father Toups said, several groups are being consulted to make sure that the decision receives proper input and will therefore not be made unilaterally, or by clerical fiat.

“The bishop is not making decisions all by himself,” Father Toups said. “We wish to allow as much due process as we can and use a variety of groups that are there to work with the bishops. We are looking at all the files from all of our 40 years.”

Bishop Fabre