Many pro football experts thought the New Orleans Saints would be heading to the Super Bowl next week, now it appears they are heading to court instead amidst reports of the team's involvement in the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.
The NFL team is asking the civil district court in the Parish of Orleans to keep the public from seeing hundreds of emails that allegedly show team executives doing public relations damage control for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, In a story, first brought to light by the Associated Press Friday, attorneys for about two dozen men are suing the church and say in court filings that the 276 documents they obtained through discovery demonstrate that the NFL team, whose owner -- Gayle Benson -- is devoutly Catholic, aided the archdiocese of New Orleans in its "pattern and practice of concealing its crimes."
Late Friday, the Saints released a statement acknowledging that some of its employees including Greg Bensel, the team’s senior vice president of communications, worked with the archdiocese in 2018 as it was preparing to release a list of former priests and church officials “credibly accused” of abuse. However, the team disavowed any implications it took part in covering up any information.
"The Archdiocese reached out to a number of community and civic-minded leaders seeking counsel on handling the pending media attention that would come with the release of the clergy names in November of 2018, the team said in a statement on its web site. The Saints said that communications chief Bensel "was contacted and offered input on how to work with the media. The advice was simple and never wavering. 'Be direct, open and fully transparent, while making sure that all law enforcement agencies were alerted.' The New Orleans Saints, Greg Bensel and Mrs. Gayle Benson were and remain offended, disappointed and repulsed by the actions of certain past clergy. We remain steadfast in support of the victims who have suffered and pray for their continued healing."
The archdiocese is also fighting the release of the emails.
The NFL, preparing for the biggest time of its season - Super Bowl Week -- was advised of the matter by plaintiffs' attorneys because the Saints' emails used the team's nfl.com domain. The league has yet to comment on the case, but Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to give his "state of the league" address in Miami on Wednesday and it is unlikely that this will not come up as part of the question and answer session with the media.
The Associated Press, which has been aggressive in its coverage of the church's sexual abuse cases with clergy over the past year, filed a motion with the court supporting the release of the documents as a matter of public interest. "This case does not involve intensely private individuals who are dragged into the spotlight," the AP argued, "but well-known mega-institutions that collect millions of dollars from local residents to support their activities."
A strong relationship with the Catholic Church in the "Cresent City" and the football team has existed for more than a decade. In a 2010 feature by the Catholic News Agency, Sarah Comiskey McDonald, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said: “In recent years, as Mr. Tom Benson has owned the team, the Saints organization has been very involved with the local Catholic Church and Catholic Charities.”
Former vice-chair of the team and Benson's granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, chaired the 2009 Archbishop’s Community Appeal to raise funds locally for the work of Catholic Charities according to the CNA feature. Archbishop Gregory Aymond also accompanied the team to Miami in 2010 when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.
Benson died in 2018, but his wife Gayle has run the team and maintained those bonds with the archdiocese. Archbishop Aymond presided over her husband's funeral.
Attorneys for the men suing the church claim the emails are important to their case. "The information at issue bears a relationship to these crimes because it is a continuation of the Archdiocese's pattern and practice of concealing its crimes so that the public does not discover its criminal behavior," wrote plaintiffs' attorneys Richard Trahant, John Denenea Jr. and Soren Gisleson. "And the Saints joined in."
Attorneys for the Saints acknowledged in a court filing that the team assisted the archdiocese in its publishing of the list but said that was an act of disclosure -- "the opposite of concealment."
According to the Associated Press, the battle over the emails stem from claims that former archdiocese schoolteacher and deacon George F. Brignac, who was removed from his ministry in 1988 after a 7-year-old boy accused him of fondling at a Christmas party. Ten years earlier, In Briganc was acquitted on three counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile.
Now, 85, Brignac, remained active as a lay minister until local news accounts in 2018 caused his ouster. The AP last year reported that Brignac, despite his supposed defrocking, also maintained access to schoolchildren and held leadership roles as recently as 2018 in the Knights of Columbus.
Brignac was indicted last month on a rape charge by a former altar boy who told police that Brignac repeatedly raped him over a four-year span starting when he was 7 years old.
The web site BishopAccountability.org -- which tracks sexual abuse charges by Catholic clergy -- counts 80 individuals who have made claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In August of 2019, the archdiocese said it has set aside $8.5 million for potential settlements from sexual abuse claims against its clergy.
According to BishopAccountability.org, 23 U.S. Catholic dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection during the ongoing sexual abuse crisis and the American Catholic Church has paid out some $4 billion in lawsuits.