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NFL franchise the New Orleans Saints are going to court to keep the public from seeing hundreds of emails that allegedly show team executives doing public relations damage control for the area’s Roman Catholic archdiocese to help it contain the fallout from a burgeoning sexual abuse crisis.
Lawyers for about two dozen men suing the church say in court filings that the 276 documents they obtained through discovery show that the NFL team, whose owner is devoutly Catholic, aided the Archdiocese of New Orleans in its “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.”
“Obviously, the Saints should not be in the business of assisting the archdiocese, and the Saints’ public relations team is not in the business of managing the public relations of criminals engaged in paedophilia,” the lawyers wrote in a court filing. “The Saints realise that if the documents at issue are made public, this professional sports organisation also will be smearing itself.”
Saints lawyers, in court papers, disputed any suggestion that the team helped the church cover up crimes, calling such claims “outrageous.” They further said that the emails, exchanged in 2018 and 2019, were intended to be private and should not be “fodder for the public.” The archdiocese is also fighting the release of the emails.
The NFL, which was advised of the matter by plaintiffs’ lawyers because the Saints’ emails used the team’s nfl.com domain, has not commented on the case. NFL policy says everyone who is a part of the league must refrain from “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL.
A court-appointed special master is expected to hear arguments in the coming weeks on whether the communications should remain confidential.
The Associated Press filed a motion with the court supporting the release of the documents as a matter of public interest.
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. The archbishop was at Gayle Benson’s side as she walked in the funeral procession.
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.
Lawyers for the men suing the church say “multiple” Saints personnel, including senior vice-president of communications Greg Bensel, used their team email to advise church officials on “messaging” and how to soften the impact of the archdiocese’s release of a list of clergy members “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.
“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 behaviour,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. “And the Saints joined in.”
A Saints spokeswoman said yesterday that team officials had no comment.
Lawyers for the Saints acknowledged in a court filing that the team assisted the archdiocese in its publishing of the credibly accused clergy list, but said that was an act of disclosure — “the opposite of concealment.”
The fight over the emails is part of a flurry of claims filed against the archdiocese over its employment of George F Brignac, a long-time schoolteacher and deacon who was removed from the ministry in 1988 after a seven-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 removal and an apology from the archdiocese. Last year Associated Press 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.
Following a new wave of publicity — in which Brignac told a reporter he had touched boys but never for “immoral purposes” — Brignac was indicted last month on a rape charge that could land him behind bars for the rest of his life. The prosecution came more than a year after a former altar boy told police that Brignac repeatedly raped him beginning in the late 1970s. Police said the abuse began when the boy was seven and continued until he was 11.
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