In New Orleans, More Quietly Settled, Decades-Old Catholic Church sex Abuse Cases Surface

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Retired New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes, foreground left, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, and Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri lie and face the altar of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to pray for forgiveness during a special mass in New Orleans in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. The intention of the mass is ‘The Church asking for forgiveness and for the healing of victims,’ referring to victims of sexual and physical abuse by Roman Catholic priests and clergy.   Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

By Ramon Antonio Vargas, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, Sept. 21, 2018

Other cases have surfaced involving quietly settled, decades-old sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Church in New Orleans, naming a pair of diocesan priests as well as an educator.

Three separate, unnamed plaintiffs pursued claims against Malcolm Strassel, once a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes; Michael Fraser, once a priest at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church; and Nolan Delatte, once an educator at St. Pius X School, according to documents filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

Records show the disputes were resolved in 2009, and the attorney representing the plaintiffs — Felecia Peavy — said Thursday that all of the claims resulted in undisclosed monetary settlements for her clients.

However, despite past pledges to be open and transparent following the 2002 sexual abuse scandal that devastated the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of New Orleans did not notify its flock of the claims against Strassel or Delatte, which date back decades but which Peavy said were deemed credible.

Archdiocese attorney Wendy Vitter on Thursday said the administration, led at the time by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, did not notify the public of the claims against Strassel and Delatte because both had died by then and the allegations dated back to the 60s and 70s.

As for Fraser, Vitter said, the archdiocese had publicized its decision to remove him from ministry years earlier after he faced unrelated allegations of sexual abuse involving a parish north of the lake.

Vitter said Hughes later also notified congregants at St. Raphael of the allegations involving their parish. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that was before or after the disposal of the case. It doesn’t appear the St. Raphael claims were reported on in the news media before Thursday.

Local archdiocesan officials in the past have been loathe to draw much attention — if any at all — to sexual abuse claims against clergy who are dead or out of ministry, saying that such members are no longer considered to be threats.

But groups such as SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, have long criticized that policy, saying the wide disclosure of allegations typically results in more victims stepping forward who could benefit from therapeutic and spiritual counseling.

Longtime New Orleans religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who spent years covering SNAP and the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, said Thursday that the church’s notification practices do not always seem to comply with what was intended by nearly 300 American bishops who met in Dallas in the early 2000s to draft a charter aimed at shielding children and rooting out cover-ups of predatory clergy.

“The whole ethic of agreeing to be more public is to signal to people that it’s now safe to come forward about whoever it may be — alive or dead,” Nolan said of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The Advocate uncovered information about the settled claims naming Strassel, Fraser and Delatte because they came out of a civil case that also targeted the Rev. Donald Dickerson, who is now dead.

Dickerson was involved in one of three cases involving allegations of sexual abuse at Jesuit High School in the 1970s, when he was a teacher studying to become a priest. Those claims — handled by local officials of the Jesuit order rather than the Archdiocese of New Orleans — all resulted in financial settlements as well.

A few hours after The Advocate approached the archdiocese on Thursday with questions about Strassel and the other two, published a story in which Archbishop Gregory Aymond — Hughes’ successor — revealed that he and other Louisiana bishops were discussing the possibility of releasing the names of clergy members statewide with credible allegations of abuse against them.

Aymond told that the policy change wasn’t a done deal, with the website quoting him as saying such a release would be “riddled with problems,” especially in cases involving dead clergy members. The story did not say why he believed that to be the case.

The Advocate months ago reported how the archdiocese had settled several claims of abuse involving defrocked Metairie deacon George Brignac without following its own guidelines to publicly report such a matter. The church alerted parishioners about the claims against Brignac — who is still alive — only after The Advocate reported on them.

Fraser, among other things, was accused of fondling the genitals of one boy while he was at St. Raphael the Archangel in about 1983.

Delatte was accused of raping a boy on multiple occasions over several months, beginning in 1962, while teaching at St. Pius X.

Strassel was accused of fondling the genitals of a boy while he was a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Uptown New Orleans from 1969 through 1971, according to court records.

In court documents, Peavy argues that the statute of limitations on the cases had not lapsed because church officials had worked in concert to conceal the abuse for years.

Public records available online show two men with the name Nolan Delatte and ties to New Orleans died in the mid-1990s. Strassel, who later attained the prestigious title of monsignor, died in 1987, those records show.

Hughes removed Fraser from ministry in 2004 after learning of an allegation that Fraser sexually abused a child at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, in the St. Tammany Parish community of Pearl River, in the mid-1980s, according to an article Nolan wrote for The Times-Picayune.

Fraser sued Hughes the following year, accusing the archbishop of defaming him and violating due process rights afforded to him by church policy.

A 69-year-old man named Michael Fraser — who once listed a home address on the same street as Sts. Peter and Paul Church — appears to be living in Texas, online public records show.

St. Raphael the Archangel merged with two other parishes after Hurricane Katrina to become Transfiguration of Our Lord. Our Lady of Lourdes was closed after Katrina, and the building was sold.

Note: This post was updated with additional comments regarding Fraser from Wendy Vitter, the archdiocese’s attorney.