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By Andrea Gallo, The Advocate, Oct. 16, 2018
The head of the Diocese of Baton Rouge announced Tuesday he will release the names of clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse within his territory — a major milestone in the fallout of a widespread Catholic sex abuse crisis and a significant decision for Bishop Michael Duca in his short time as the church’s leader here.
New Bishop of the Baton Rouge Diocese Michael Duca, outside the church after his installment at St. Joseph Cathedral, Friday, August 24, 2018. ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING
Duca’s announcement came on the same day that bishops and administrators in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and three other dioceses in Louisiana said they would release the names of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. The Louisiana bishops had said in late September that they were weighing whether to release the names and that they would they were planning a “united response” to avoid putting too much pressure on one diocese.
“The Diocese of Baton Rouge, which was formed in 1961, will release the names of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors,” Duca said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. “This is of the highest priority to us.”
“We’re working on a process to research our files so that when we do publish the list it will be accurate and complete,” Duca added. “Part of this process is to establish a timeline for the release of the list.”
Duca was not made available for an interview Tuesday. But he said in an interview in August with The Advocate — shortly before he became the bishop of Baton Rouge — that it was important to be upfront with church parishioners when someone accused a priest of abuse. He referenced past times when churches would say a priest who had been accused was removed for medical reasons, and he said church leaders needed to be honest with their flock.
“You have to be honest to make sure people can come forward and receive support,” Duca said at the time.
On Tuesday, he reiterated other past comments that he wanted to be “attentive to the issues of justice and show concern for victims in a way that is transparent, credible, honest and caring.” The Louisiana bishops said in late September that they were weighing whether to release the names and said then that they were planning a “united response” to avoid putting too much pressure on one diocese.
The debate about releasing names of clergy members accused of abuse reignited months ago, when a Pennsylvania grand jury report found that Catholic leadership there protected more than 300 predator priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 victims. The firestorm aligned with Duca’s installation in August in Baton Rouge, and he said at the time that Catholic sex abuse had been “oozing out” and that it would be better to quickly clear it out.
Victims have come forward recently in Lafayette and New Orleans to share their stories about priest abuse — some decades old, others happening more recently.
The Diocese of Lafayette recently placed Monsignor Robie Robichaux on leave stemming from an abuse allegation that dated back to the late 1970s. The Rev. Michael Guidry turned himself into St. Landry Parish law enforcement in June after being accused of sexually abusing and teenager.
Eleven men in St. Martin Parish are also pursuing sex abuse claims against the Rev. Kenneth Morvant, who the plaintiffs say used “alcohol and the power of God” to prey on them.
Lafayette Bishop Douglas Deshotel said in a statement Tuesday that his diocese is “embarking on the same process” as the archdiocese of New Orleans and examining 50 years of clergy files. He called disclosure of the list “a good idea to foster healing and provide assurance that no one accused of abuse is currently serving in ministry.”
In New Orleans, The Advocate recently revealed that Jesuit High School paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements to past students who said they were abused there. And at least 10 men accused defrocked New Orleans Deacon George Brignac of sexually abusing them when they were children.
The church recently settled several claims of abuse involving Brignac, also from decades earlier, but did not alert parishioners until the settlements were reported by The Advocate. Brignac continued to serve as a lay minister until recently.
“It is important to note that the review of the files goes back at least 50 years to ensure the list is accurate and complete,” said New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. “We will publish the list as soon as this work is finished.”
The Diocese of Shreveport’s diocesan administrator, the Rev. Peter Mangum, said his diocese “will follow the lead of New Orleans and release names.” Duca was the bishop of Shreveport before he came to Baton Rouge.
Officials with the Houma-Thibodaux diocese also said they will disclose names. Church leaders in the dioceses of Alexandria and Lake Charles dioceses did not respond Tuesday to questions about whether they will release names of priests credibly accused there.
Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, said the church’s move to release the names will finally provide “an opportunity for survivors to know that they weren’t alone, that it wasn’t their fault.”
Still, Lennon said, it’s disappointing that it has taken years and significant pressure from advocates and the media to get to this point. “It’s outrageous it’s taken civil investigation to compel bishops to take basic steps in human decency,” he said.
It remains to be seen what level of detail the lists of “credibly” accused clergy members will contain, and whether they will include only diocesan priests or members of religious orders and other clergy as well.
Baton Rouge has had fewer recent public accusations of priest sexual abuse than its neighboring dioceses to the east and west. In 2005, the Diocese of Baton Rouge renamed Bishop Sullivan High School to St. Michael High School after the diocese settled a case for a minor boy who said the past bishop of Baton Rouge abused him. Sullivan died in 1982.
In 2009, the diocese settled another lawsuit for $225,000 after another man said Bishop Sullivan abused him at a seminary. Sullivan is buried alongside other past Baton Rouge bishops at St. Joseph Cathedral.
Staff Writers Ramon Antonio Vargas and Ben Myers contributed to this report.