NEW ORLEANS — A Catholic priest who was ordained in New Orleans is now under investigation for allegedly sexually abusing an airman and a pre-teen boy during his time as an Air Force chaplain, according to several of his alleged victims and their family members who told WWL-TV they were recently interviewed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Brian Highfill is now retired from the military and living in Las Vegas. He was removed from public ministry by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and added to a list of credibly accused clergy in August 2020, after WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate found nearly two decades of abuse complaints against Highfill.
But now, new details are emerging about some of those complaints. A man who filed an anonymous lawsuit in 2019 alleging Highfill sexually abused him at England Air Force Base in Alexandria, La., in 1982 is now coming forward and sharing his story with WWL-TV.
Also, five people who claim Highfill abused them or their siblings say the Air Force is investigating at least two different abuse cases on Air Force bases in the 1980s, including one involving an 11-year-old boy.
There is no time limit for bringing rape or sexual assault charges under the military code of justice and a conviction is punishable by death.
Under church law, the archdiocese was responsible for Highfill, even after he went to serve in the military. But Archbishop Gregory Aymond initially said there were no complaints against Highfill in his personnel file until 2018, shortly before Aymond released his list of abusive clergy.
That’s when Mike Brandner Sr. provided a stack of love letters Highfill had sent his younger brother, Scot, in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Scot Brandner killed himself in 1993 and the family discovered the letters after his death.
'Inappropriate' but not enough
Aymond called the letters “inappropriate,” but left Highfill off his list of credibly accused clergy because he said the letters didn’t prove any sexual abuse occurred.
But later, the archdiocese acknowledged it already had a formal complaint of sexual abuse against Highfill in its files dating back to 2002. Archdiocesan officials said they couldn’t find it until after WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate questioned Aymond about it.
“It was not in his file,” Aymond said.
The complaint was made by a woman who called a hotline set up by the church to handle a wave of sexual abuse complaints in 2002 after a Boston Globe investigation exposed a sweeping church cover-up of pedophilia claims against dozens of priests.
Moments after WWL-TV finished an interview with Aymond, church officials said they had located photocopied notes from the woman’s phone call. They don’t include Highfill’s name but describe him as a former priest living in Las Vegas.
"Life sent into tailspin"
WWL-TV interviewed the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. She claimed Highfill gave her sensual backrubs, then body rubs, then molested her in a Metairie church in 1975, when she was 16.
A lawsuit was also filed in Orleans Parish in 2019 by the airman from England Air Force Base, under the pseudonym AA Doe. It alleges the archdiocese “knew or should have known” about complaints of abuse against Highfill before he was assigned to the air base in 1982.
Thomas Furino now says he’s tired of hiding behind the pseudonym and is angry the archdiocese still hasn’t acknowledged the validity of his claim. He said his relationship with Highfill sent his life into a 40-year tailspin. He was already struggling with his sexuality because of some incidents growing up in New Jersey and he had trusted Highfill to guide him when he met him at the air base.
Furino said Highfill used his position of trust to invite him to his cabin in Pineville, across the Red River from Alexandria. Unbeknownst to Furino, Highfill was still sending love letters to Scot Brandner and to the young woman back in the New Orleans area, telling them how much he loved them and encouraging them to visit him in Pineville.
Furino alleges Highfill started giving him backrubs, then body rubs, just as he allegedly had done with the woman in Metairie seven years earlier. When Furino told Highfill to stop, he alleges the priest gave him alcohol and “nerve pills” that caused him to black out. He said that’s what happened one night in December 1982.
"What's going on?"
“I was in the recliner and I woke up in a stupor and he was on his knees,” Furino said. “‘What's going on? What are you doing? What are you doing?’ He said something stupid, like he was tying my shoe. … And I got up and I kicked him in the chest.”
Furino said he escaped from Highfill's cabin on his roommate’s motorcycle and crashed it in a ditch.
He said he spiraled from there, out of the military and into drug and alcohol abuse.
First, he blamed God, and then himself, for letting it happen. He thought there must be something wrong with him. But then, in 2001, he entered a Virginia drug rehabilitation center and met someone in his group who started talking about his abuse at the hands of a priest.
“That floored me,” Furino said. “I thought I was the only person in the world.”
According to court documents, Furino reported Highfill’s alleged abuse to therapists starting in 2001. In 2004, he made a formal complaint of Military Sexual Abuse to the VA and was approved for full disability benefits.
But yet again, Aymond said the archdiocese wasn't notified about Furino’s allegation against a priest under its jurisdiction.
“It didn't get here,” he said of Furino’s complaint. “I don't know, but I'm guessing that the Archdiocese of the Military Services must have done that. We have no indication of that being told to us. And if that's true, that's wrong. They should have notified us.”
And yet, when Aymond wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of the Military Services in October 2018 after Mike Brandner made his complaint, Archbishop Timothy Broglio said no complaints had been made against Highfill.
"There is nothing in his personnel file that would cast suspicion on his ministry while a military chaplain," Broglio wrote.
The New Orleans Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in May 2020, which automatically halted Furino's lawsuit and dozens of others, converting them into bankruptcy claims. It also prevented church officials from having to testify under oath about the way the claims against Highfill were handled.
“How do they get away with that?” Furino said. “Why can't they just play fairly? Why can't they produce the documents that they're supposed to produce?”
WWL-TV called Highfill in Las Vegas last year and he referred all questions to his attorney, Michael Zerlin, who has not returned calls.
Highfill has denied Furino's allegations in court records but admitted in those documents to having had an affair with a married woman from 1980 to 1984, a period that included his time at England Air Force Base.
Furino now lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania. For a while, the diocese there stepped up to pay for his therapy, but eventually told him the New Orleans Archdiocese is responsible.
Furino says the archdiocese has offered him nothing.
Editor's note: This story was changed Jan. 31 to clarify that church officials did not provide WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate with copies of notes from the phone call made by the woman who called to complain about Highfill in 2002.