NEW ORLEANS, La. (WWL-TV) — As victims’ advocates rallied outside the team’s practice facility, the New Orleans Saints again disputed any claim that the team helped cover-up evidence of sexual abuse involving clergy of the Catholic Church.
The NFL team issued a statement as the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, demanded that the team release emails exchanged between Saints public relations employees and the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Last week, attorneys for about two dozen men suing the church said in court filings that the 276 documents they obtained through discovery show that the NFL team, whose owner is devoutly Catholic, aided the archdiocese in its “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.”
The Saints organization emphatically disputed the claims, saying the archdiocese sought its advice on how to handle media attention that would come from its 2018 release of its list of more than 50 clergy members “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. The organization said Saints Vice President of Communications Greg Bensel offered input but the scope of his involvement was “minimal.”
“The advice he gave was simple and never wavering,” the Saints statement said. “Be direct, open and fully transparent, make every name on the list that had credible evidence publically available, while making sure that all law enforcement agencies were alerted. If credible evidence existed, those listed should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
The statement added that Bensel also gave advice on how to release the list to the media to give journalists time to ask questions before making it public.
“Never did the Saints organization offer advice to conceal information, in fact, we advised that as new information relative to credible evidence about other clergy came to light, then those names should be released and given to the proper authorities,” the statement adds.
The Saints argued in court papers this month that the 2018-2019 emails were intended to be private and should not be “fodder for the public.” The archdiocese is also fighting the release of the emails.
A handful of Saints emails that emerged last year in the clergy abuse litigation included an October 2018 exchange in which Bensel asked an archdiocese spokeswoman whether there might be “a benefit to saying we support a victim’s right to pursue a remedy through the courts.”
“I don’t think we want to say we ‘support’ victims going to the courts,” Sarah McDonald, the archdiocese’s communications director, replied, “but we certainly encourage them to come forward.”
SNAP demanded Wednesday that the team release the emails to the public and asked for the National Football League to intervene. The victims’ advocates said it was “extremely alarmed” that the team refused to release the emails to the public.
“While the collusion between the two organizations is disturbing enough, in refusing to be ‘direct, open, and transparent’ about what transpired, the Saints appears to be using National Football League assets to undermine the efforts of abuse survivors seeking justice through the courts,” SNAP said.
Ties between local church leaders and the Saints include a close friendship between New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Gayle Benson, who inherited the Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team when her husband, Tom Benson, died in 2018.
Gayle Benson has given millions of dollars to Catholic institutions in the New Orleans area, and the archbishop is a regular guest of hers at games and charitable events for the church.
SNAP also demanded a public apology from the Saints ownership and a pledge from them to support victims of abuse in the Catholic Church, not just the institution where the crimes occurred.”
“But words aren’t enough, and we call on Gayle Benson and the Saints to take real, concrete steps towards supporting survivors of abuse,” SNAP Louisiana leader Richard Windmann said.
The fight over the emails is part of a flurry of claims filed against the archdiocese over its employment of George F. Brignac, a longtime school teacher and deacon who was removed from the ministry in 1988 after a 7-year-old boy accused him of fondling him at a Christmas party. That accusation followed claims that Briganc abused several other boys, including one case that led to his acquittal in 1978 on three counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile.
Church officials permitted Brignac, 85, to act as a lay minister until local news accounts of his service in 2018 prompted his ouster and an apology from the archdiocese. 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.