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NEW ORLEANS (ChurchMilitant.com) - A bombshell report is revealing New Orleans' Abp. Gregory Aymond allegedly, on several instances, disregarded his review board's recommendations concerning clerical sex abuse.
Today, The Guardian released its investigation into the New Orleans ordinary, unveiling the contents of a 48-page memo claiming Aymond repeatedly operated contrary to the guidelines established by the U.S. bishops for handling abuse by clergy.
Richard Windmann, president of Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse (SCSA), told Church Militant, "This is not a shock to me at all. The institutionalized, systematic and wholesale rape of our precious children can be traced back to Archbishop [Joseph] Rummel."
"The Archdiocese of New Orleans is a cesspool, and it is truly bewildering how and why Archbishop Aymond remains in power," continued Windmann, himself a childhood sex abuse survivor. "The victims and survivors of these monsters anxiously await the conclusion of the ongoing FBI investigation into the Archdiocese."
According to The Guardian report, "The archbishop on six different occasions disregarded findings of credibility that would have led to accused priests being outed as abusers in a region with about 500,000 Catholics, essentially going against the advice of his board."
"We have published the names of all those … whom we saw substantiated sexual abuse," Aymond declared in November 2018. "My promise is transparency — is to be transparent now and in the future."
The six clerics allegedly mishandled by Aymond are listed as Frs. William O'Donnell, Joseph Benson, Luis Henao, Paul Hart, Luis Fernandez, and Henry Brian Highfill.
"One complaint accused O'Donnell of having raped a boy weekly for a period of two years beginning when the child was 12, doing so occasionally while other priests watched and took photos," The Guardian detailed. "A second complaint accused him of orally raping and molesting another boy for a period of two years, beginning when the child was about 10."
The board is said to have unanimously voted the claims "were not manifestly false or frivolous," while in other votes the majority voted the allegations were credible.
"In 2017, Aymond authorized settlements of $120,000 and $100,000 to each of O'Donnell's accusers," the article revealed. "They were just two of an astounding 130 or so abuse-related settlement agreements that Aymond's administration struck in a 10-year period beginning in 2010, according to the memo."
In May 2018, Abp. Aymond decreed the allegations against O'Donnell contained "no semblance of truth."
The Guardian noted, "A third allegation against O'Donnell surfaced that year, which the priest addressed in a letter to Aymond. He admitted to inflicting corporal punishment on students — including spanking teenagers — but denied sexual contact."
"Aymond dismissed the third complaint as lacking any semblance of truth," the report added.
The advisory board reportedly heard three claims of abuse against Fr. Benson.
"A report from the board cited in the memo documents how Benson admitted to inappropriately touching the genitals of two men older than the age of 18. He argued that he was applying oil on their privates as part of a blessing," The Guardian noted.
The board did not rule on the third allegation due to the accuser's death by suicide before the board's investigation.
One of the two men was found to be a vulnerable adult, causing the board to recommend Benson's removal from ministry.
"Benson retired in 2012, according to an archdiocesan spokesperson," The Guardian explained.
In Fr. Henao's case, The Guardian wrote, "By the time Aymond was in his second full year as New Orleans's archbishop, priest Luis Henao was facing at least 15 accusations of grooming or inappropriate behavior."
In 2002, the same year sex abuse was exposed in the archdiocese of Boston, The Guardian reported that "New Orleans church officials placed Henao on leave in light of allegations that he had abused a child of a family with whom he was friends."
"The New Orleans's archdiocese later reinstated Henao, citing in part a purported dearth of evidence against him and his adamant denials of wrongdoing," it added.
Allegations against the cleric continued to pile on after his reinstatement.
"The allegations were compelling enough to prompt two board findings about Henao: that his ministry 'should not involve any contact with children and adolescents whatsoever' and that he 'should be directed to absolutely avoid such interactions and contact,'" The Guardian emphasized.
The archdiocese reportedly told Henao to avoid direct ministry to children, but the cleric continued to celebrate Masses at a New Orleans church. Then, The Guardian noted, "Without any public explanation from either the church or him, Henao's name suddenly stopped appearing in a 2017 directory of Catholic priests in the US."
The Guardian article describes how Henao's brother confirmed that the archdiocese had revoked the priest's retirement plan.
"Gustavo confirmed that his brother's retirement payments were cut off when the judge overseeing the archdiocese's bankruptcy case ordered church administrators to stop paying out the benefits of all living priests and deacons who had also been found to be credibly accused abusers," it explained.
Henao is not publicly listed by the archdiocese as being credibly accused.
Fr. Paul Hart's case was another allegedly mishandled by Abp. Aymond.
"One of the more notable revelations centers on Paul Hart, who earlier in his clerical career had admitted to fondling, kissing and engaging in simulated sexual intercourse while clothed with a 17-year-old girl," the report detailed. "Aymond ultimately judged that Hart behaved immorally but did not abuse a child because church law, which was applicable at the time, set the age of adulthood at 16."
Aymond's main canon law advisor on the case, Msgr. Robie Robichaux, was later himself accused of sex abuse by multiple women.
"The archbishop assigned Hart to work at a local high school in 2017 before his admission's appearance in bankruptcy-related documents prompted a tip to his employer about his past," according to the findings. "Hart was forced to retire and later died without ever landing on the archdiocese's credibly accused list."
The case of Fr. Fernandez began before Abp. Aymond's time in New Orleans but still involves the current hierarch.
"In 2007, under the command of Aymond's predecessor Hughes, the archdiocese reviewed a complaint which accused Fernandez of three instances of sexual abuse," The Guardian noted.
The report continued, "Two allegations involved Fernandez ejaculating on a boy. Members of the allegation review board at the time deemed the claims credible, the memo reveals, but the archdiocese never publicly disclosed that."
Instead, the archdiocese quietly offered the victim "unlimited psychological therapy."
"Furthermore, like in Henao's case, Fernandez said that the archdiocese more recently told him it would stop remitting his retirement benefits to him after the bankruptcy judge ordered the organization to halt payments to credibly accused priests," the report noted.
The late Fr. Brian Highfill was another priest to receive numerous complaints.
"Among the claimants were two US Air Force members who served during his days as a military chaplain. They said Highfill fed them alcohol and then forced sexual acts on them while they were unconscious," The Guardian explained. "Another was a New Orleans-area woman who described how Highfill molested her at a local church in 1975 when she was 16 during a different phase of his career."
Highfill was finally suspended from public ministry in 2018, when "a New Orleans-area man — Mike Brandner — went to the archdiocese and turned over stacks of love letters that the priest sent his little brother, Scot Brandner. Scot, who had since died by suicide, was 10 when he met Highfill."
Aymond initially left Fr. Highfill off the list of credibly accused priests in 2018. He was finally added to it in 2020.
When Highfill died in 2022, the report added, "The New Orleans archdiocese announced the death in a weekly bulletin which expressed a wish for him to 'rest in peace.' There was no mention of the air force investigation or that local church officials had in fact labeled him a credibly accused predator."
A seventh priest, Fr. Jerry Dabria, was also listed in the memo, and like the others, not named on the archdiocese's website.
"Aymond's archdiocese also greenlit a relatively substantial $87,500 payment to settle a claim against ... Jerry Dabria. They did so before barring the advisory review board from even considering the allegation for potential credibility," The Guardian reported.
As of today, only Highfill's name is on the archdiocese's list of credibly accused priests.
"Only the late Highfill has ever appeared on Aymond's credibly accused list — which has grown from fewer than 55 named clerics to more than 70 since it was first published — or faced a law enforcement investigation," the report rued. "Even then, Aymond waited more than two years to add him to the roster."