Attorneys for several men who say members of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Washington sexually abused them in Maryland decades ago defended on Friday the new law that allowed them to sue the Catholic Church: The Child Victims Act.
The filings from plaintiffs’ lawyers respond to a legal challenge from the Washington diocese last month, with the church’s attorneys arguing Maryland’s child victims law is unconstitutional, and that the men’s lawsuits, filed in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, should be dismissed as a result.
Archdiocese attorneys contend the legislature granted defendants immunity from child sex abuse lawsuits after the victim turns 38, when it expanded the statute of limitations to that age in 2017. They argue their legal protection stems from a rare provision in the law known as a statute of repose, which created “vested rights” that lawmakers cannot simply change.
Lawyers for the victims in the lawsuits disagree.
In their filing Friday, attorneys for a man who sued the Washington diocese in Montgomery County said the diocese’s lawyers’ interpretation of the law runs afoul of “well-settled principles set forth by the Maryland Supreme Court.”
“Applied here, those principles demonstrate that the law at issue here is a statute of limitations, which the General Assembly is free to modify under Maryland’s constitution,” wrote attorneys Robert K. Jenner, Philip C. Federico and Steven J. Kelly, all of whom are representing the man suing in Montgomery Circuit Court.
The Friday filings spelled out the differences between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose.
The only other known statute of repose in Maryland is in the construction industry, according to experts. In that context, it protects the likes of builders and architects from liability related to injuries sustained in their structures after a certain amount of time passes following completion.
Under the statute of repose, the clock for claims starts ticking when the building is deemed operational. It doesn’t matter when someone is injured.
With a statute of limitations, the law starts counting the period a person has to file a lawsuit from the time they sustain an injury.
That distinction, plaintiffs lawyers argued Friday, supports the position that the 2017 law was a statute of limitations.
“Very simply, the timeline does not begin to run until a child is sexually abused,” wrote the legal team behind the Prince George’s County lawsuit, a half dozen attorneys from the Baltimore law firms Schochor, Staton, Goldberg and Cardea, P.A. and Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC.
The back-and-forth filings cut to the heart of a legal battle that likely won’t be resolved until the state Supreme Court determines whether the child victims law is constitutional.
Anticipating an immediate challenge in court, legislators last spring included a provision in the law, which took effect Oct. 1, allowing for a mid-lawsuit appeal. The appeal comes at a common stage of civil litigation where defendants ask the court to throw out a lawsuit on legal grounds.
Typically, when a trial court denies a motion to dismiss a lawsuit, the case proceeds toward trial. While plaintiffs almost always can appeal if a judge decides to throw out a lawsuit, the Child Victims Act specifically allows the defendant to appeal if a judge rules it’s constitutional and that the case should go to trial.
The impact of the legal proceedings in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is being felt around the state: Judges, facing the prospect of going ahead with lengthy litigation based on a law with questions looming over its constitutionality, are likely to freeze those cases until the state’s high court decides on the Child Victims Act.
A class action complaint, the lawsuit in Prince George’s County alleges three men were sexually abused as children at the Catholic schools or churches they attended in the suburbs of Washington. The men “have suffered serious and permanent physical, emotional, and financial injuries,” because of the abuse. They say the Archdiocese either knew, or should have known, about its priests’ predatory ways.
In the Montgomery County lawsuit, a man says he suffered “horrific” sexual abuse while attending a church in Gaithersburg as a child at the hands of two priests, including one with a well-document history of abuse.
Because of the abuse, the man “experienced significant anguish, culminating in a mental breakdown,” the Montgomery County lawsuit said. “In addition to extreme emotional distress, he has experienced physical sickness and dramatic weight loss.”
The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of sexual abuse.
The Archdiocese of Washington denied allegations raised in both complaints in the legal filings where they argued the child victims law was unconstitutional.
In their filings Friday, the plaintiffs’ lawyers cited a report from Maryland’s Attorney General documenting decades of abuse and torture of children by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Laying out the findings of a four-year investigation, the report released in April detailed evidence of 156 clergy and other church officials abusing at least 600 children dating to the 1940s.
The General Assembly passed the Child Victims Act shortly after the report became public.
Maryland’s legislature “acted well within its power to remedy a societal ill of enormous proportions,” the legal team behind the Prince George’s County lawsuit wrote.
“The legislature established, as the public policy of Maryland, that sexual predators, their accomplices, and their facilitators must be called to account in civil court for their actions,” the lawyers wrote. “Moreover, by eliminating the statute of limitations, the General Assembly recognized the psychological injury and other obstacles that have long prevented victims from coming forward.”
Plaintiffs lawyers said Friday that Maryland courts have determined that policy considerations can be helpful in determining whether a law is a statute of limitations or a statute of repose.
“Quite simply, the legislature could not have intended to provide a special and exceedingly rare legislative privilege — a statute of repose — in favor of every person and organization charged with protecting a child from sexual abuse but who failed to do so,” the lawyers behind the Prince George’s lawsuit wrote.
Even if the 2017 law granted the church and other entities immunity from civil actions stemming from decades old child sex abuse, those legal protections would not extend to the archdiocese’s “longstanding and extensive cover-up.” The lawsuits in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties allege the archdiocese’s actions amounted to “fraudulent concealment,” meaning the lawsuits might be able to proceed even if 2017 provided some immunity.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in Aotearoa New Zealand has received several reports of clerical sexual abuse and church-based abuse from victims and survivors in the Catholic Diocese of Palmerston North.
SNAP invited the new Catholic Bishop of Palmerston North, John Adams, to get to know the survivors’ network. However, Bishop Adams responded: “I had a look at your Facebook page. I was shocked to be honest at the level of vitriol I found there, indeed an almost complete lack of charity.”
Bishop Adams then emphasised protecting his clergy instead of supporting the victims: “Surely Catholic clergy have a right to both the just scrutiny, and the protection of the law.”
SNAP is disappointed that Bishop Adams judged the survivors’ network by Facebook comments rather than by the official SNAP website or personal conversations with network members.
SNAP reports that Bishop Adams also asked for “assurances” from the network before he would offer support. It is not clear what the Bishop meant by “assurances,” however when asked to clarify, he did not respond.
SNAP reports that one of the biggest concerns when dealing with clerical sexual abuse is that those who bear the ultimate responsibility, who are obliged to support the victims, often blame the victims rather than the abusers.
SNAP canvassed some of its members for responses to Bishop Adams’ comments. The Bishop’s claim that the victims “lack charity” was especially upsetting. “What an unfair reaction, accusing survivors of lacking charity and using that to not support us,” one survivor said. Other responses SNAP received from its members are:
“The Bishop expects people who are carrying life-shattering trauma memories to speak in soft delicate tones.”
“If anyone dares to say how upset and angry they are about being sexually assaulted by a priest, then he calls that vitriol?”
SNAP reports that if Bishop Adams is judging the survivors’ network by comments people leave on the network’s Facebook page, then he also needs to look at Catholic Facebook pages around the world. He will then see that there are some “nasty and vindictive things” said on them too.
SNAP is aware that the Catholic Church in New Zealand has safeguarding standards which include listening to the abused. Bishop Adams’ reaction to an invitation to get to know a survivors’ network and support the abused, appears to be a violation of those safeguarding standards.
National leader for SNAP in Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Christopher Longhurst stated in response to Bishop Adam’s comments:
“I think it is appalling that any church leader would criticise any victim of clerical child sexual assault or any church-related abuse, accusing them of a lack of charity, or asking for assurances before supporting them. This betrays an utter ignorance around trauma-informed response. Victims and survivors have suffered enough. They deserve unconditional support from all members of the church. Their anger is perfectly justified. It is the lack of charity from church leaders such as this bishop that is shocking.”
National leader for SNAP in Australia, Mr Donald McLeish, also responded to Bishop Adam’s comments:
“They do not realise the pain they have caused and continue to cause. I have no answer but to not expect support when it is not there. The bishop is saying, providing we stop the criticism he will cooperate. We cannot do that while the criticism is warranted.”
A Louisiana Catholic priest’s sudden dismissal from the church where he had been a popular pastor for the last several years has set off a fresh scandal in the embattled New Orleans archdiocese, the second-oldest in the US.
As they tell it, local church leaders rescinded Anthony Odiong’s invitation to serve as a cleric in the region due to unspecified “concerns … about [his] ministry prior” to his arrival in the archdiocese – “and quite possibly during his time” there. As a result, the New Orleans archbishop, Gregory Aymond, told Odiong’s bishop in Nigeria to recall him to his home diocese “as soon as possible to address these concerns”, officials said in a statement.
The statement did not mention whether those concerns stemmed from Aymond’s receipt in 2019 of a detailed complaint against Odiong of years-long sexual and financial abuse from a woman who viewed the clergyman as her spiritual adviser – and who says the church brushed her off.
“These concerns do not include the abuse of minors nor to our knowledge involve anyone in this [church],” is all the archdiocese’s statement said.
The statement added that the archdiocese had reported Odiong to law enforcement authorities, and the organization had ordered him to soon leave the rectory where he had been residing.
Meanwhile, Odiong has offered up a starkly different counter-narrative. He has publicly suggested that Aymond booted him out from serving the archdiocese with about a half-million Catholics after likening members of the LGBTQ+ community to “monkeys and animals and chimpanzees” in a recent sermon that warned of a purported liberal takeover of the church.
The archdiocese’s statement did not deny that it found Odiong’s remarks to be problematic. And it suggested that the comments may have expedited a departure originally scheduled for January.
“Unfortunately,” the statement said, “[Father] Anthony’s words and actions since being informed of this decision have led to us taking action to relieve him as pastor now.”
Whatever the case, the circumstances of Odiong’s departure from the St Anthony of Padua church highlight the layered predicament Aymond and his archdiocese find themselves in.
The archdiocese has racked up nearly $34m in legal and other professional services fees since filing for federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 in the face of a mountain of local clergy abuse litigation. To cope with the bankruptcy court expenses, the church recently announced a plan to close several of its churches.
St Anthony of Padua was not one of the churches affected by the downsizing. Yet Odiong’s dismissal has stirred unrest among his parishioners and their community of Luling, Louisiana, whose population of about 14,500 people resides about 25 miles (40km) south-west of New Orleans.
Masses held by Odiong in which parishioners came to be healed both physically and spiritually proved to be particularly popular and helped attendance for weekend services surge from fewer than 390 to more than 500, according to reporting in the local St Charles Herald Guide newspaper.
Odiong and at least some in his former congregation now feel as though they have been thrust into the split brewing between those who support and those who oppose Pope Francis’s attempts to make the Catholic church more welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, a prominent agenda item during a recent synod of bishops at the Vatican.
Francis in November dismissed Joseph Strickland, at that time the bishop of Tyler, Texas, for his criticism of the pope’s goals to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and to give the laity more responsibilities within a church that does not allow gay marriage.
The outpouring of support for Odiong from some of his followers has generally echoed the support among conservative circles that met Strickland after his ouster.
“You have your flock’s unwavering love,” read one of numerous recent Facebook posts from Luling residents. Another read: “I [shudder] to think what my spiritual life would be like without his guidance … My friends and I stand WITH [Father] Anthony Odiong, NOT against him.”
However, what the controversy surrounding Odiong’s departure also seems to highlight is how few – if any – of his most fervent believers realized that he stands among more than 300 clergymen, religious personnel or lay church employees who are accused of abusing vulnerable parishioners – mostly children but also adults – in claims filed as part of the archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy.
Most of the records associated with the bankruptcy are under a court seal. But the Guardian managed to obtain a copy of the claim against Odiong, which was prepared by his accuser’s attorney, Kristi Schubert.
A review of the document – filed under oath – raises questions about whether Aymond could have acted against Odiong long before his abrupt dismissal and the anti-LGBTQ+ remarks that he insisted cost him his position.
When asked about his response to the accusations in the bankruptcy, Odiong said: “We have discussed the allegations, and I have a lawyer taking care of that.”
He said he could not elaborate but maintained that Aymond had rescinded his invitation for Odiong to minister in the New Orleans archdiocese because the Nigerian “went against the pope and the synod”.
Schubert, who represents numerous clergy abuse survivors, said: “I am not surprised at all that it took a public scandal for [Father] Odiong to finally see even minimal consequences. In my experience, credible abuse allegations alone have not been enough to motivate the church to remove a priest.”
‘Dismissed my claim’
Odiong underwent his clerical training in Nigeria and was ordained in 1993, according to his biography on the St Anthony of Padua webpage. For more than a decade, he served in Nigeria.
But the country has historically been convulsed by sectarian violence against Catholics. In 2006, Odiong moved to Austin, the capital of Texas, to minister there on the invitation of the city’s bishop at the time: Aymond.
Odiong later worked in campus ministry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He obtained a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Meanwhile, Aymond became New Orleans’s archbishop in 2009. In about 2016, Aymond invited Odiong to serve as the pastor of St Anthony.
Odiong’s healing masses helped improve church attendance. Their popularity led to the construction of a new healing chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which opened in 2020.
He took parishioners with him to Medjugorje, the site in Bosnia which has attracted a million pilgrims annually since 1981, when six children and teenagers there said they had witnessed the appearance of the Virgin.
But the year before the healing chapel at St Anthony opened, a woman who described meeting Odiong at Franciscan University in 2007 contacted the archdiocese of New Orleans with detailed abuse accusations against Odiong.
The abuse claim that the woman later filed in bankruptcy court described how Odiong positioned himself to be her spiritual director.
“From May 2007 until December 2018, Father Odiong and I spoke daily,” said the woman, who recalled being 37 when she met the clergyman. As her personal spiritual adviser, she said Odiong “came to control nearly every aspect of my life, including my financial and relationship decisions”.
Among numerous other alleged misdeeds, she accused Odiong of forcing her to perform sexual acts – including oral intercourse – with him during the sacrament of confession, at private masses in her home and in at least one motel room. She described the acts occurring in New Orleans, in west Texas, in Pennsylvania and in Alabama, in her car while stopped in a church parking lot – despite the vow of celibacy that Catholic clergyman make.
The woman said Odiong told her she would earn forgiveness for her sins through her sexual service. She accused him of threatening to “place a curse on her head” if she ever refused, of insinuating that she was mentally ill by calling her a “troubled woman”, and of stealing money, including thousands of dollars from her.
At one point, needing the floors of her home redone, she alleged that Odiong forced her to hire a man who she learned was “a rapist”. Her floors did not end up getting redone, and she was drawn into a legal dispute that cost her nearly $50,000, she said.
The woman said she mostly stopped engaging with Odiong in late 2018. That was weeks after Aymond had released the first version of a list naming several New Orleans Catholic clergymen whom the church considered to be credibly accused of molesting children or vulnerable adult parishioners, igniting a wave of additional claims of church molestation that eventually thrust the archdiocese into bankruptcy.
Odiong was not on the list, which was one piece of the broad fallout from a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that found Catholic clerical sex abuse in that state was much more widely spread than the church had acknowledged.
And in early 2019, the woman – whose home is in Pennsylvania – contacted a religious brother serving as the New Orleans archdiocese’s point of contact for abuse claimants, and reported Odiong.
She said the archdiocese’s victims assistance coordinator told her: “I do not think you are remembering things correctly.” Then, toward the middle of July that year, she said, she reported Odiong directly to Aymond.
The woman said she sought to boost her credibility by saying she had ghostwritten some of the letters Odiong sent to Aymond over the years, including ones that successfully asked for financial assistance to complete his education while also requesting an invitation to work in New Orleans.
Nonetheless, “I felt like he dismissed my claim as well,” the woman said of Aymond.
The woman cited copies of text messages and phone call logs to establish the volume of contact that she had with Odiong and to support her assertion that she had conversed with Aymond. She captured telephone recordings that showed she contacted detectives in Luling and her Pennsylvania home town about Odiong, though it is unclear if those agencies pursued investigations.
After the woman reported him to the archdiocese, Odiong wrote to her saying that the victims assistance coordinator had contacted him, according to an email her lawyer provided. It is unclear what else the archdiocese may have done in response to her claims.
Information produced during the bankruptcy’s discovery process and reported on by the Guardian has established that the archdiocese over the last several decades has gone to extreme lengths to shield abusive clergymen – including the handful of ones convicted of or charged with crimes by subpoena-wielding authorities despite the church’s protection.
Odiong did serve as the pastor of St Anthony of Padua through most of 2023, presiding over weddings, baptisms, weekly masses and services at the healing chapel.
As recently as August, Odiong, Aymond and a third clergyman hosted a three-day series of masses at a church in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Odiong presided over a healing service following the mass, according to an archdiocesan bulletin.
It was not until a Saturday service on 18 November at St Anthony of Padua that Odiong informed his congregation that their time together was coming to an end. He said his plan was to move by January to Florida, where he intended to build a chapel like one whose construction he was overseeing in Texas.
At Sunday mass on 26 November, he elaborated with remarks that took aim at the LGBTQ+ community.
“The church is dividing already,” Odiong said during his homily that day, according to a video available on YouTube. “Now the gays have taken over the church. The LGBTQI – whatever you call them – have a stranglehold on the church now. We’re going to begin to bless all kinds of monkeys and animals and chimpanzees, and priests who will not do it will be persecuted.”
Odiong went on to suggest that he was “not safe” because of his beliefs on that topic. “Yet, I’m not afraid – I’m excited,” he said. “I like a good fight.”
As Odiong tells it, Aymond told him that he had until the next several days to move out of St Anthony of Padua’s rectory. The archbishop had rescinded Odiong’s invitation to minister in the New Orleans archdiocese, the ousted clergyman said.
Before St Anthony’s Sunday mass on 3 December, the church announced it would not livestream video of the service as usual.
At mass, the archdiocese said, parishioners were read a statement telling them that Odiong’s removal was being expedited over various but unspecified concerns. The archdiocese’s statement asked Odiong’s congregation to respect his privacy and keep him in their prayers “during this time of transition”.
The statement triggered a wave of Facebook comments in support of Odiong. One accused the archdiocese of having “besmirched a holy man’s character to his congregation” with no substantial specifics.
The woman who has accused Odiong of abuse is demanding damages from the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case, which remains unresolved. She argues that she lost at least $150,000 in wages after her mental anguish over Odiong’s alleged domination interrupted her ability to work as a licensed clinical social worker.
The woman’s lawyer, Schubert, said it was disturbing but unsurprising that the archdiocese “allowed Odiong to continue to hold a position of trust and authority” for years despite her client’s complaint.
Schubert said her client’s case was only the latest to illustrate how “abuse allegations will typically be ignored or covered up as long as possible” by institutions like the archdiocese.
“The only thing I’ve really ever seen the church respond to quickly is the fear of bad publicity,” Schubert added. “They don’t fix things that are bad. They fix things that make them look bad.”
As for Odiong, he said he plans to continue in ministry as long as he has the permission of his supervising bishop in the diocese of Uyo, Nigeria.
“You have to let this play out,” Odiong said. “This is just the beginning.”
Survivors of institutions run by Catholic diocese recall litany of sexual abuse as bankruptcy process keeps documents hidden
By Jason Berry
Call her Sheila.
She doesn’t want her name used because of court testimony she has given as a state social worker which helped put men who abused their families in jail. She’s retired now, but still a rescuer by nature.
On a recent afternoon she went back to Madonna Manor, the Catholic orphanage in a Spanish colonial revival building, now shuttered, several miles across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. “A reverent place,” she sighed, “but it’s also a crime scene.”
She gazed at the wooden plank covering a window. Raccoons now nested in rooms that were once the dormitory for boys under age 12 at Madonna Manor. Feral cats roamed the empty playgrounds where homeless men sometimes camped.
“I tried. I did everything I could to get that man put away,” she said, referring to Harold Ehlinger, who lived in a dormitory room when her day job was counseling boys at Madonna Manor decades ago.
On the opposite side of Barataria Boulevard, another Spanish mission structure housed the older, adolescent boys: Hope Haven, a name dripping with irony like candle wax given the hell described in victims’ lawsuits against the New Orleans archdiocese.
The buildings warped by neglect stand on vast green acreage – potentially sizable assets in the bankruptcy protection this archdiocese sought in 2020, facing abuse victim lawsuits. The church case now exceeds 500 abuse claims, whose potential value depends on the survival of a recent Louisiana “look-back” law which eliminated filing deadlines for victims.
The outlines of a subterranean criminal religious culture are emerging with roughly 100 abuse claims that center on the two orphanages.
The severity of suffering at Hope Haven and Madonna Manor probably explains why 23 of those claimants, already some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized, have had legal troubles and been incarcerated – their cases are among those brought by the law firm of New Orleans trial attorney Frank E Lamothe.
“People escaped – sometimes in groups,” said a former resident, not among Lamothe’s clients, with his own lawsuit against the orphanages pending, under a pseudonym.
Call him Leon. Born in 1971, he was sent to Madonna Manor from a splintered family in late 1982 or 1983 – he’s blurry on exactly when. “Instead of taking abuse I’d run away – too many times to count,” he said. “Police would bring you back. It was pretty much a prison.”
A religious brother named Harold Ehlinger is accused of child sexual abuse in several lawsuits pending against the church and Catholic Charities, which ran the two facilities, while utilizing public funds from the United Way and local government.
In the fall of 1980, Sheila had a freshly minted master’s in social work from Tulane University when she went to work at Madonna Manor. In counseling and group therapy she discovered boys angry, cynical and acting out over sexual abuse by Brother Harold in his private room within the dorm. The boys agreed to give her statements – she taped interviews.
When Sheila rapped on his door, Ehlinger answered in a bathrobe, with a flustered child inside. Ehlinger was “furious at seeing me”, she recalled.
She told her supervisor. The supervisor had her meet with a priest who listened gravely and accepted her documentation. Ehlinger disappeared. She was relieved. In 1982, she took a better-paying job with the state of Louisiana.
Sheila the whistleblower had gone when Leon arrived. Church authorities had allowed Brother Harold to reside in a cottage near Hope Haven.
“Brother Harold was like the boss,” Leon continued. “Once you’re targeted they got lockdown units. They’d put a pillow over your face so you can’t hear what’s going on. Sometimes they wore masks to conceal [their] identity so you didn’t know who raped you.
“They’d bring you over to the Dark Tower – that’s what we called the church, the cathedral they had on the property. Running away from Madonna Manor you just wanted to be someplace else. You’re still going to an abusive environment, but it was the horrors of being sexually assaulted, like the devil was in the building.”
Leon’s lawsuit alleges beatings and sexual assaults by several men. “Brother Harold performed some form of fondling, groping or molesting of [Leon] on an almost daily basis,” the complaint alleges.
“When I got out,” he told the Guardian, “I was damaged goods.”
In the mid-80s, Sheila was driving past a Catholic school. She saw Ehlinger, surrounded by kids, guiding them into school buses. She was stunned. “I naively thought they’d turned him over to the police or kicked him out of ministry.”
Ehlinger was one in a procession of alleged pedophiles at Hope Haven and Madonna Manor, according to various pending lawsuits, depositions and documents from past cases not subject to bankruptcy judge Meredith Grabill’s secrecy order concealing church documents.
Ehlinger’s last known address is a Holy Cross religious house in Austin, Texas. A process server went to hand him legal papers there.
Ehlinger is among the more than 200 accused Catholic church abusers not on the local archdiocese’s “credibly accused” list, though the church resolved past cases identifying him in what became negotiated settlements.
The church declined the Guardian’s request for an interview with Archbishop Gregory Aymond or to answer general questions about this report.
Haunted by nuns
Call him Joe. His lawsuit against the church uses a pseudonym.
In 1976, when he was 11, Joe went to Madonna Manor. He noticed that the pool was closed.
“I was told one of the students drowned in the pool,” he said. “I never knew the boy’s name, only that he snuck out one night and died in the pool.”
Joe said he started wondering about the boy’s death after Sister Martin Marie began “tying me by the genitals and nearly suffocating me to sexually pleasure her between the legs”.
“She liked to sit on my face till I couldn’t breathe,” he remarked.
To this day, he said, he wonders about whether the boy who was said to have drowned may have been abused.
Martin Marie, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, was named in an earlier wave of lawsuits over the orphanages in 2009. Like Ehlinger, her name is not on the archdiocese’s credibly accused list.
Joe finds that appalling because he says Sister Martin Marie wasn’t the only nun complicit in the beatings and sexual abuse he endured on the verge of puberty.
“I kept running away from Madonna Manor because of those nuns,” Joe said. “They sent me back to my mom and stepdad in Metairie. Things didn’t go well for me after Madonna Manor. My mom didn’t believe me about the nuns.”
Joe said he was committed to a mental hospital in Mandeville, a community across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. He recalled being treated with the anti-psychotic medication thorazine. “I didn’t trust people,” he said. “I became very violent, I did fight the staff.
“I was held down, injected and put in restraints.”
He got out. After scrapes with the law he found a foster father, and slowly began rebuilding his life.
“I’m in a safe place now,” Joe said.
For many years he avoided Madonna Manor. But on a recent autumn day Joe gave a work buddy, who lived near the complex, a lift home. He found himself on Barataria Boulevard, and the memories started surging. He parked at the back of the Madonna Manor dormitory.
He found Sheila standing there.
Sheila saw the pain on his face and knew in a heartbeat he was a survivor. Like her, she sensed, he had left a piece of his heart there. Thinking of the boys she had tried to help, she stepped toward him and said: “Hi, I’m Sheila.”
“I’m Joe,” he replied. “I used to live here.”
She was a stranger but within a few minutes he was pouring out stories of his past – did she know about the boy who drowned? She did not. Sheila took the Madonna Manor job four years after Joe left. They exchanged phone numbers. He called her that night, sobbing as he let loose memories of the hell he survived, wondering if that boy who was rumored to have drowned was a victim like he was, only worse.
Joe continued by sharing details about his best friend at Madonna Manor, an altar boy who was molested by a priest.
The boy, Rene Perez, was eventually moved to another home across the lake.
“He and two or three others had run away,” Joe said. “They took bicycles and were going across [a] bridge when he got hit by a car and thrown in the water. They found him I think about five days later.
“The funeral was held at Madonna Manor church, but I wasn’t there that weekend.”
Still fighting tooth and nail
In the 1920s, Hope Haven opened as a home for dependent children. Madonna Manor opened a few years later. Eventually boys younger than 12 lived at Madonna Manor, and older teenagers at the other institution.
Exactly when the two institutions became a magnet for pedophiles and people prone to sadistic behavior is unclear. But 17 lawsuits filed in 2005 made allegations going back to the 1950s that described horrific abuses.
Besides the School Sisters of Notre Dame, other authority figures at the orphanages were Salesian priests and brothers, who founded the nearby Archbishop Shaw high school.
A major figure in the 2005 litigation, a priest named Ray Hebert, was director of the two facilities from 1966 to 1971.
Hebert, who held the elevated title of monsignor, was also the director of Catholic Charities, which had responsibility for the orphanages. If any cleric had textured knowledge of the internal dynamics at the two facilities, it was Ray Hebert.
In 2008, during the litigation, Hebert gave a deposition, saying: “If you were a trained social worker, you didn’t speak of orphanages.” Institutions for dependent children was more correct, he said, because state funding was involved.
Yet the survivors of the sexual and physical abuses may as well as have been on another planet from most of society. Most came from dysfunctional families and lacked any freedom to leave on their own, other than by running away, which invited retribution.
Hebert in the early 1990s took another job, as vicar of clergy at the New Orleans archdiocese, a position that required him to investigate priests accused of child sexual abuse.
Attorney Michael Pfau, who represented plaintiff-survivors of the orphanage, asked if Hebert ever reported a priest to the police or child protective services.
“No,” he answered. “I never did.”
Hebert stated that after interviewing a given priest, he sent a report to his boss at the time: the longtime archbishop Philip Hannan.
Pfau asked: “Did you ever ask a priest to sign a written statement?”
Hebert replied: “No, not that I remember. I recall one case, you know, where after interviewing the [priest] and taking notes, I did ultimately write up a report as to what I had learned from him, and asking him to go over the report to see whether he objected to anything I had put in that report not being accurate. But I didn’t ask him to sign this report.”
On retiring from that job in 2003, Hebert said he destroyed all his notes.
Doing so was a serious violation of canon law, according to Tom Doyle, a former priest and canon lawyer in the Vatican embassy in Washington DC in the early 1980s. Canon 1719 reads: “The acts of the investigation, the decrees of the [bishop] which initiated and concluded the investigation, and everything which initiated and concluded the investigation, and everything which preceded the investigation are to be kept in the secret archive of the [administration] if they are not necessary for the penal process.”
How many reports Hebert actually wrote is unknown. But his 4 November 1999 assessment of Father Lawrence Hecker was made public, in a recent filing by the Orleans parish district attorney’s office, after his criminal indictment.
The document is notable for Hecker saying he harassed or slept with various boys but did not have sex. Hecker does, however, concede that a young man “came out, years later, he told his parents that he and I had had sex together. They reported this to … Hannan and he spoke with me about it in early 1988.”
By 2012, when Sister Carmelita Centanni, the archdiocese’s victim assistant coordinator, wrote to Archbishop Aymond, she cited an allegation of sexual abuse against Hecker from the police in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb, stating: “This is the NINTH allegation we have on record against Larry Hecker.”
Hecker retired with the comfort of a church pension until it was discontinued after the New Orleans archdiocese’s bankruptcy. He has been in jail awaiting trial since his indictment in September.
In the 2005 Hope Haven-Madonna Manor litigation, three plaintiffs mentioned Hebert among other accused abusers. Hebert responded by filing his own lawsuit against the plaintiffs, alleging defamation and denying he ever abused anyone.
Two other plaintiffs also named Hebert among other abusers but had not filed suit at that stage. Ultimately, after the archdiocese settled the Hope Haven-Madonna Manor litigation for $5m, the plaintiffs who named Hebert withdrew their claims against him.
Religion News Service revealed a bitter divide at the time of the settlement. Some involved in the settlement wanted the church to be required to release all documents pertaining to abuse at Hope Haven and Madonna Manor, but that didn’t happen.
“We’ve had to fight the church tooth and nail for more than four years to get [the church] to acknowledge wrongdoing,” said attorney Roger Stetter, who also had clients in the litigation. Stetter accused the archdiocese of trying to hide evidence.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was recently installed at the time, seemed conciliatory. “It’s important that these wrongdoers come to light and that we admit that as far as we can tell [the charges] are true,” he said.
But the church went on to underreport its list of abusers.
Between 2010 and 2020, the archdiocese settled more than 130 sex abuse claims, totaling $11.7m, in many cases requiring victims to sign confidentiality agreements – a move specifically denounced by the 2002 US bishops’ youth protection charter.
Hebert died in 2014. Several years later, there was a new wave of lawsuits against Hope Haven and Madonna Manor after Aymond published a list of New Orleans Catholic clergymen whom his archdiocese considered to be credibly accused of child molestation.
In January 2020, the archdiocese paid $325,000 to resolve a case that accused Hebert, Sister Martin Marie and others with ties to Hope Haven as well as Madonna Manor. The archdiocese would not pay such settlements if it didn’t consider claimants believable, as one of the organization’s vicars general told an abuse survivor in a separate case.
But Hebert’s name is conspicuously absent from the archdiocese’s credibly accused list, which has been updated several times since it was first published in 2018.
The issue no one wants to touch
Amid news of the later lawsuits, Joe contacted the attorneys John Denenea and Richard Trahant.
They told him the process could be long and frustrating. But he signed on.
After the bankruptcy began, Joe was surprised at the opportunity to serve on the creditors’ committee, representing other survivors and negotiating toward a settlement. He had few illusions about the church but wanted to help push against the rock of injustice.
Last year, he went to a scheduled meeting with Aymond, where he and three other survivors hoped to speak their truth directly to the archbishop. But then came word that Judge Grabill was removing him, Trahant, Denenea and three more of the lawyers’ survivor clients from involvement with the committee.
Grabill maintained that Trahant had violated a secrecy order by warning a local Catholic high school run by his cousin that the campus’s chaplain had a substantial stain in his past.
Trahant’s warning ultimately forced the archdiocese to disclose that the chaplain had engaged in sexual misconduct with a teenage girl at a past assignment in the 1990s but was allowed to continue his career.
“I think it was a setup by the church,” Joe said. He said his lawyers had long been after the records that vividly outline the abuses at Madonna Manor, Hope Haven and numerous other archdiocesan institutions across the New Orleans area, which serves about a half-million Catholics.
“The church doesn’t want to release that information,” Joe continued. “I think Richard [Trahant] was a patsy and they took us all out. That’s my take.”
The archdiocese’s formidable status in bankruptcy court leaves a trail of questions.
Given the public funds expended at Hope Haven and Madonna Manor, why haven’t federal authorities used their power to do a surgical review into every file archived at the archdiocese, including those detailing the abusive history of the two orphanages?
If Joe had cause to worry about whether a boy drowned there, and if his pal Rene Perez was the victim of a priest and died trying to escape another facility, what kind of oversight did Louisiana officials provide at Hope Haven and Madonna Manor?
Should the sadistic violence and rapes alleged by Leon be swept under the rug of time by the most powerful law enforcement authorities?
If Hebert, who oversaw the facilities, was in fact an abuser – as a $325,000 settlement would suggest – do documents shed light on his decisions that allowed the place to become a pedophiles’ haven, as alleged in the lawsuits?
How much do those 23 former Hope Haven and Madonna Manor residents who are now incarcerated know about what happened there?
Will Judge Grabill seal off information on crimes against children, as alleged in so many cases, to furnish a settlement when the church finally presents a reorganization plan?
More than half of New Orleans’s federal judges have recused themselves from archdiocesan litigation because of ties to the Catholic church.
This fact does not surprise Stephen C Rubino, a veteran plaintiffs’ lawyer who is now retired in Vermont. But that doesn’t mean Rubino – who spent many years in New Jersey litigating against the church – likes it at all.
“You should not be able to maintain a criminal racketeering conspiracy for hiding pedophiles and still function as a religious, tax-exempt charity,” Rubino – also a former Florida state prosecutor – said in response to the New Orleans archdiocese’s bankruptcy. “That is the issue no US attorney wants to touch.”
As Charles Richardson gradually lost his eyesight to complications from diabetes, certain childhood memories haunted him even more.
The Catholic priest appeared vividly in his mind’s eye — the one who promised him a spot on a travel basketball team, took him out for burgers and helped him with homework. The one, Richardson alleges, who sexually assaulted him for more than a year.
“I’ve been seeing him a lot lately,” Richardson said during a recent interview, dabbing tears from behind dark glasses.
As a Black middle schooler from northwest Baltimore, Richardson started spending time with the Rev. Henry Zerhusen, a charismatic white cleric. It was the 1970s and Zerhusen’s parish, St. Ambrose, was a fixture in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, which was then experiencing the effects of white flight and rapidly becoming majority-Black. Lauded as a “super-priest” when he died in 2003, Zerhusen welcomed his church’s racial integration and implemented robust social service programs for struggling families, including Richardson’s.
For most of his life, Richardson kept the abuse a secret, a common experience for survivors of sexual abuse. But cases of clergy abuse among African Americans are especially underreported, according to experts, who argue the lack of attention adds to the trauma of an already vulnerable population.
Black survivors like Richardson have been nearly invisible in the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis — even in Baltimore, home to a historic Black Catholic community that plays an integral role in the nation’s oldest archdiocese. The U.S. Catholic Church generally does not publicly track the race or ethnicity of clergy abuse victims. Without that data, the full scope of clergy sex abuse and its effects on communities of color is unknown.
“Persons of color have suffered a long legacy of neglect and marginalization in the Catholic Church,” said the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a Black Catholic priest and Fordham University professor whose research has focused on the issue. “We need to correct the idea that all or most of the victims of this abuse have been white and male.”
Earlier this year, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office released a scathing report on child sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore dating back several decades. The report documents more than 600 abuse cases but leaves out any context about race. There are clues, however, in the names of priests and churches listed.
Out of 27 parishes in the archdiocese that have significant Black populations, at least 19 — 70% — previously had priests on staff who have been accused of sexual abuse, according to an Associated Press analysis. For parishes that experienced demographic shifts over time, these abusers were in residence in the years after Black membership increased and white membership declined.
Among those affected is St. Francis Xavier, one of the nation’s oldest Black Catholic churches, where four abusive priests have served over the decades. The parish’s first Black pastor, the late Rev. Carl Fisher, has been accused of abusing several children at St. Veronica’s, another majority-Black parish he served.
In 2013, decades after Richardson’s alleged abuse, Zerhusen faced accusations from another victim — the grandson of a woman who worked at St. Ambrose for 40 years. In response to that claim, two monsignors called Zerhusen “saintly” and unlikely to abuse, according to the attorney general’s report. The archdiocese ultimately settled with the victim for $32,500 and added Zerhusen to their list of credibly accused priests this past July.
Christian Kendzierski, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said he was just learning of Richardson’s allegation about the late Zerhusen when contacted by the AP and didn’t have information on it.
Zerhusen worked with other abusive priests, including at St. Ambrose. At two more parishes, including after he was elevated to monsignor, he supervised four other priests later credibly accused of child sex abuse.
The last time Zerhusen abused him, Richardson said, he jumped out a stained-glass window to escape the church’s sanctuary, landing on the ground outside. In Richardson’s account, Zerhusen accompanied him to the hospital and told a doctor he landed on a Coke bottle playing football. Richardson still bears scars on his elbow that he attributes to the fall.
But the emotional scars have never healed. Until recently, he had never told his wife or adult daughters about the assaults.
Richardson dropped out of high school not long after the abuse. An aspiring professional tennis player, his game suffered, and he later became a car salesman. He still sometimes struggles when interacting with other men, especially in medical settings and situations involving physical contact.
As Black men, “we have a reputation we have to carry with us, a façade,” he said. “Something like this is one of the worst things — to say you have been raped or touched by another man.”
Not long after release of the attorney general’s report, Maryland lawmakers voted to repeal the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims to sue. At age 58, Richardson retained a lawyer and decided to go public.
Ray Kelly, a lifelong Catholic and chair of the pastoral council at St. Peter Claver, a Black parish in west Baltimore, said the archdiocese has repeatedly failed to address racial disparities, a trend that extends far beyond the clergy abuse crisis.
In response to the 2020 racial justice protests, Kelly helped lead a working group convened by the Baltimore archbishop that focused on combating racism, but he said the archdiocese took little action after receiving the group’s recommendations.
He pointed to the Catholic Church’s long history of treating African Americans like second-class citizens — beginning in Baltimore with the founding of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, when four Black women started their own religious order after being rejected by an existing sisterhood. One of the founders, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, is now being considered for sainthood.
The aftermath of the Civil War brought another new religious order to Baltimore: The Josephites were founded to minister to recently freed slaves. But despite their mission, for decades they largely did not admit Black men into the priesthood. The archdiocese now lists at least five Josephite priests as credibly accused of abuse.
“The Americanized Catholic Church still sees the Black population as a perpetual charity case, so to speak,” Kelly said. “And the predators are going to go where the prey is — Black communities relying on the church for support.”
Kendzierski, the archdiocese spokesperson, said its leaders have taken significant steps to address the church’s legacy of racism. He said the archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry works to “lift up our Catholic social teaching related to the dignity of the human person and ensure worship is inclusive of the scope of the Catholic culture.”
In some cases, the church’s charity programs allowed abusers to reach African Americans who were not regulars at Mass. Richardson, for instance, was raised Baptist, but his family still relied on the local Catholic church for food, home repairs and other resources — a scenario that experts say is surprisingly common.
Abuse also came from within the Black community. Among the alleged perpetrators were some of the archdiocese’s few Black Catholic leaders.
When he was ordained in 1974, Maurice Blackwell was a celebrated rarity: a homegrown Black priest from west Baltimore. In the years since, he has been accused of sexually abusing at least 10 boys under 18, most at majority-Black parishes he pastored.
Darrell Carter alleges he was one of Blackwell’s victims. Now 63, he recently decided to sue under the new state law, which went into effect Oct. 1.
Carter’s father took him to Mass as a child. Before dying of cancer, he told Carter to find a Catholic church if he was ever in need: “They will help you.”
Money was scarce at home, and Carter often went hungry. As a teen, he visited St. Bernardine and later St. Edward — Black Catholic churches helmed by Blackwell — looking for odd jobs like shoveling snow to earn money. Instead, he said, Blackwell sexually abused him for four years and paid him $25 each time. Carter said Blackwell brandished a gun and threatened to kill him if he told anyone.
Carter said he reported the abuse to the archdiocese several years later, hoping to have Blackwell removed from ministry, but nothing came of it. The archdiocese said it received a report of Carter’s abuse in 2019 and reported it to law enforcement. Blackwell didn’t respond to recent messages seeking comment.
Carter went on to have a family and a welding career. He also struggled with alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and maintaining stable housing. Of the sexual abuse, he said, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it.”
Carter’s attorney, Joanne Suder, who also represents Richardson and many other clergy abuse victims in Baltimore, said it’s common for people to wait decades before disclosing their abuse. She said that’s often the case even as they experience its debilitating impacts, including struggles with mental health and addiction.
In 2002, another of Blackwell’s victims — a young Black man named Dontee Stokes — showed up at the priest’s Baltimore rowhome, pulled out a handgun and shot Blackwell after he refused to apologize. The shooting became a defining event in Baltimore’s mishandling of clergy sex abuse claims, just as the scope of the crisis was breaking open in Boston.
Blackwell survived, and Stokes was later acquitted of attempted murder. He served 18 months of home detention for gun charges.
Stokes had reported the abuse nearly a decade before the shooting, but police never filed charges. Although the archdiocese found the claims credible, Cardinal William Keeler, then Baltimore’s archbishop, returned Blackwell to ministry against the advice of an independent review board. A psychiatrist who evaluated Blackwell noted the difficult situation, given his “leadership in the African American community as well as the intensely positive feelings of his parishioners.” Finally in 1998, Blackwell was removed from ministry after another victim came forward.
But it was only after the 2002 shooting that Blackwell was formally laicized and criminally charged. Despite being convicted of three counts of child sexual abuse, he was granted a new trial because of the “improper testimony about possible other victims,” according to the attorney general’s report. Prosecutors ultimately declined to retry him.
“Nobody got any closure,” said another of Blackwell’s victims, who received a settlement from the archdiocese.
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing being ostracized from his community if he publicly discussed his abuse. The AP generally does not identify sexual abuse victims without their consent. A runaway teen in the mid-1970s, the man ended up living in St. Bernardine’s rectory, where he said Blackwell sexually abused him. He came forward to support Stokes at trial.
For speaking out against Blackwell, the man got angry phone calls from friends and family members. “When you have somebody as popular as him, how can you knock the priest off his throne?” he said.
Blackwell remains popular, according to people in the community.
Gloria Webster also remembers feeling shunned by other Black Catholics.
“It was like I was suing God,” said Webster, who pursued criminal and civil charges on behalf of her daughter, who was sexually assaulted as a teenager. “All my friends turned against me.”
In 1990, Angelique Webster became suicidal, admitting she had been sexually abused for years by her white youth pastor, the Rev. Richard Deakin, starting when she was 13. The family lived down the block from the parish, St. Martin, where Gloria was an active volunteer.
Gloria and Angelique struggled to find other Black survivors: One support group for clergy abuse was filled with older white members. Gloria once called Blackwell for spiritual guidance but said she never heard back. Not long afterward, he was accused of abuse himself.
Then a graduate student in African American studies, Gloria was keenly aware of how gender and race played into the subsequent legal proceedings. She said the archdiocese tried to incorrectly “make it out like I’m this poor drug addict” who didn’t deserve support, but she was determined to fight for her daughter.
At the time, Maryland survivors generally had only a few years after the abuse to file a lawsuit, which meant Angelique navigated the case between multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. “I couldn’t hide from it because it was there all the time,” she said in a recent interview.
Deakin pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and child sex abuse, receiving no jailtime with a 20-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. He had married by then and later became a licensed social worker at a Veterans Affairs facility in Pennsylvania. Because of his conviction, a state board ordered him to avoid counseling anyone under 21, according to licensing records. He surrendered his license in 2018 at the board’s request, which cited the public release of information about his sexual misconduct. He didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
In 1993, the Websters settled out of court for $2.7 million, a staggering sum for the archdiocese, where most settlements fall under $100,000.
The settlement, paid in monthly installments, has allowed Angelique to afford ongoing therapy and maintain financial stability. Now married with a child of her own, she made a short documentary several years ago about Gloria’s fight as a Black woman to sue the Catholic Church.
Survivors coming forward now, including Richardson and Carter, will likely receive smaller settlements since the archdiocese recently declared bankruptcy, allowing it to protect its assets more and shift the litigation to bankruptcy court, a less transparent forum.
“I feel like they are escaping responsibility,” Richardson said.
But for his part, Richardson recently found solace in telling his daughter about the abuse: “A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
He’s retired now, but Richardson recalled a moment that stood out during his long career as a car salesman — when another clergy abuse victim walked into his dealership. That was sometime after Stokes had shot Blackwell, and Richardson recognized him from widespread media coverage of the case. Before selling him a car, Richardson told Stokes he was proud of him for fighting back.
But he couldn’t yet say what he really wanted to share: that it happened to him too. Now, he finally can.