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Former New Orleans priest dies under Air Force investigation, amid new evidence of coverup

Highfill died from cancer on Jan. 23. He was 79. The New Orleans Archdiocese announced Highfill’s death in its weekly bulletin last week.

NEW ORLEANS — Ed Joseph was optimistic that he would finally get to confront Brian Highfill, a former New Orleans priest and Air Force chaplain whom Joseph first accused of sexually abusing him 36 years ago.

Joseph, an Air Force veteran living in South Dakota, said a military investigator told him in December that he would be called soon to testify in a criminal case against Highfill.

What’s more, Joseph has documents that appear to prove that the branch of the Catholic Church that ministers to soldiers, called the Archdiocese for the Military Services, tried to cover up his sexual assault allegations when New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond asked about Highfill’s record as a chaplain.

But Joseph’s hopes for justice – along with the hopes of at least one other airman and three civilians who claimed they were abused by Highfill over the last 20 years – were suddenly and emphatically dashed two weeks ago.

Highfill died from cancer on Jan. 23. He was 79. The New Orleans Archdiocese announced Highfill’s death in its weekly bulletin last week, without mentioning that the former priest was on Aymond's list of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The announcement ends with the words: “May he rest in peace.”

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Death means no justice for alleged victims

“He's not going to have eternal rest, if there's such a thing – not considering the crimes that he's committed, crimes against humanity,” Joseph said. “And I'm going to just hopefully let him go and just move on. I have to. Otherwise, I'm going to torture myself.”

Former airman Thomas Furino also said he’s crestfallen to hear of Highfill’s death. He reported to the federal Veterans Affairs department in 2004 that Highfill sexually assaulted him in 1982 near England Air Force Base in Alexandria. His attorney, Soren Gisleson, said Air Force judge advocates told him they were preparing to prosecute Highfill for that alleged assault.

Highfill denied Furino’s allegations in court documents, admitting instead to having a four-year sexual affair with a married woman during his time at the Louisiana base. Reached before his death, Highfill and his attorney declined to answer questions from WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations confirmed an open criminal case against Highfill. An OSI spokeswoman said Monday judge advocates general – or JAGs – do not comment in detail on open cases, but they intended to close the case now that Highfill is dead.

Information hard to come by

Aymond added Highfill to the church’s list of credibly accused clergy in August 2020, saying he did not put the priest on the list when he first released it in November 2018 because he had not directly received any of the complaints, including a 2002 complaint from a woman who alleged Highfill molested her in a Metairie church in 1975 when she was 16, Furino’s complaint in 2004 or Joseph’s complaint in 2016.

RELATED: Losing Faith: The Church Sex Abuse Scandal

The complaints from Joseph and Furino accuse Highfill of plying them with alcohol and then forcing sexual contact on them when they were unconscious. The complaint from the woman accuses him of inappropriately touching her at an age when she was too young to consent.

“To be very honest, it angers me that we didn't have the information that we needed because this whole process would have been much simpler for us,” Aymond said in 2020.

Aymond said he was unaware of the sex abuse allegations when Mike Brandner Sr. came to the archdiocese in August 2018 and turned over stacks of love letters Highfill had sent his little brother, Scot Brander.

Years later, Scot Brander committed suicide.

Aymond said the letters alone weren't enough to establish sexual abuse, but they did prompt him to look into Highfill's record in the Air Force.

He sent a letter to the Archbishop for the Military Services in October 2018, asking if the division had received any allegations against Highfill from his time as a chaplain.

Military Archbishop Timothy Broglio responded definitively in November 2018: "There is nothing in his personnel file that would cast suspicion on his ministry while a military chaplain."

However, more than two years earlier, Joseph had sent emails to the Archdiocese for the Military Services victims assistance coordinator and vicar general alleging Highfill sexually assaulted him at Bitburg Air Base in West Germany in 1986.

The victims assistance coordinator, Dr. Eileen Dombo, wrote to Brandner confirming that the 2016 complaint had been referred to the Air Force for investigation.

WWL-TV confronted the Archdiocese of the Military Services with Joseph’s 2016 complaint and asked how Broglio could tell Aymond there was nothing that would cast suspicion on his ministry as a chaplain.

A spokesman responded: "The AMS did not receive any reports or briefings from the Air Force investigation and was not contacted to participate in any investigation. Therefore, there were no findings to note in Msgr. Highfill's personnel record."

Msgr. Gene Gomulka is the former chief of chaplains for the U.S. Marines. He said there should have been record of Joseph’s complaint in Highfill’s file at AMS, and the 2016 emails prove Broglio was covering up the allegations when Aymond asked about it.

Gomulka said this was typical of what he’d seen first-hand from the Archdiocese for the Military Services in the past. Gomulka wrote to AMS in 2002 detailing five sexual abuse claims against Catholic chaplains he had supervised in the U.S. Marines during a three-year period, from 1991 to 1994, including one involving a minor. But Gomulka said his report was ignored by the military archbishop at the time, now-Cardinal Edwin O'Brien.

O’Brien filed a report to a national committee investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic church in 2004. O’Brien’s report claimed there had only been two child sexual abuse claims made against chaplains from any military branch dating back to 1950.

“Things have really not changed,” Gomulka said.

In addition to the documented 2016 complaint to AMS, Joseph said the church rebuffed his efforts to file sexual assault complaints against Highfill immediately after the alleged incident.

He said he went to the Air Force inspector general on Bitburg Air Base “and they did not even want to discuss it or even consider prosecuting it because they didn't want to ruin that poor man's life.”

Joseph said that after he made a formal complaint against him, Highfill tried to demonize Joseph and out him as gay during a time when gay people were not allowed to serve in the military. He said that led him to do what he called a "foolish thing," when he chaperoned a group of Christian Youth Organization students on a trip to Rome.

Joseph said he was stuck with a huge bill for the kids' calls from their hotel back to the States, and Highfill refused to reimburse him. So, Joseph took the money out of a Catholic scholarship fund. He confessed what he did to Highfill, but he said the chaplain broke the seal of confession to report his theft to the authorities.

“I did a very foolish thing that I owned,” Joseph said. “I took the money that I believed was mine from that scholarship, which in hindsight I regret because it … ended up being the end of my career.”

Highfill, who was ordained in 1974, was removed from the ministry in 2018, following Brandner's complaint. In Louisiana, he served at Our Lady of the Rosary in New Orleans; St. Ann, St. Chatherine of Siena, St. Edward the Confessor and St. Francis Xavier, all in Metairie; and St. Francis de Sales in Houma. He was assigned to the Diocese of Las Vegas when he was removed from the ministry.

Joseph was eventually court-martialed and got a bad-conduct discharge. Once back in the States in 1987, he said called the Archdiocese for the Military Services again to try to report Highfill for sexual assault. Again, he was rebuffed.

“The receptionist sounded like an elderly woman and I basically told her what I wanted,” Joseph said. “She said to me, I should be ashamed of myself, that I was a pervert and I was going to burn in hell and hung up on me.”