NEW ORLEANS — When the Archdiocese of New Orleans issued a list two years ago that included dozens of clergymen credibly accused of sexual abuse, Mike Brandner Sr.’s heart sank.
Brandner’s late brother, Scot, had a trove of love letters sent to him by a former New Orleans priest, Brian Highfill, in his desk drawer when he died. The letters started arriving in the early 1980s, when Scot was 17 and in high school, and because Scot had known Highfill since he was 10, Mike Brandner feared for what could have happened when Scot was a minor. Months before the list came out, Brandner had started pushing Archbishop Gregory Aymond to put Highfill on it.
But Highfill wasn’t included.
Though Aymond had indefinitely suspended Highfill from public ministry in late November of 2018, after Brandner contacted him, the archbishop said advisers had determined the letters weren’t “explicit enough” to establish sexual abuse.
According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Highfill’s pastoral assignments in the New Orleans area were:
Our Lady of the Rosary, New Orleans
St. Ann, Metairie
St. Catherine of Siena, Metairie
St. Edward the Confessor, Metairie
St. Francis de Sales, Houma
St. Francis Xavier, Metairie
But now that’s changed. After another accuser with detailed claims came forward, an archdiocesan board that reviews clergy abuse complaints recommended Tuesday that Aymond should add Highfill to the roster of priests and deacons suspected of molestation or other inappropriate conduct. Aymond accepted the recommendation, putting Highfill on a list alongside 63 other clergymen.
Aymond announced the development in an interview with WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate on Tuesday after the outlets sent over a list of questions about the handling of Highfill’s case.
The tide turned this spring, when a woman contacted Mike Brandner after learning of him and Scot and told him she had met Highfill when she was 16 and he was 33. The woman told Brandner — and eventually church officials — that the priest had sensually kissed her and given her full-body massages in his office. She, too, would eventually receive love letters.
Brandner and the woman feel a sense of validation that the church has accepted their claims.
“All of what people have done, what people have not done needs to come to light,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s the only way that our church can heal and move forward.”
The process, they say, was winding and confusing. In one instance, the woman told Aymond and an archdiocesan official who works with clergy abuse claimants that she had first reported Highfill to the archdiocese in 2002, after a Boston Globe investigation showed the worldwide church had covered up numerous cases of clerical child sex abuse. Aymond and the other official told her time and again that they had no record of that.
Aymond repeated that in Tuesday’s interview and emphasized that he had gone over Highfill’s file “many, many, many times.”
On Wednesday, archdiocesan officials said a record of her complaint did exist after all. But that record asserted the woman had refused to name her alleged abuser and didn’t want to be contacted again. A spokesman said the archdiocese hadn’t been able to find the record because, without a name attached, it wasn’t in Highfill’s file.
The woman said she specifically remembers saying Highfill’s name and describing him as a Las Vegas resident.
What’s more, records from a 2019 lawsuit show a military veteran in 2004 had accused Highfill, when he was an Air Force chaplain years earlier, of attempting to force oral sex on the man. Aymond said that complaint wasn’t reported to him and that he only learned of it because of the lawsuit.
Aymond said he understood the frustrations over the process but defended the pace of the church’s investigation.
“We cannot arbitrarily … put someone’s name out because once their name is on the list, their life is changed,” said Aymond, adding that the archdiocese has alerted authorities in New Orleans and Las Vegas, where Highfill still lives, about his inclusion. “There’s a lot of shame that goes with that.”
He also said he wished he and the archdiocesan investigation team had possessed the previous complaints when Brandner came forward, which would have made the decision to name Highfill easier.
“There was information out there that we did not know. I regret that. And I need to find out why that wasn’t given to us,” Aymond said.
Highfill spent six years as a priest in New Orleans beginning in 1974, working at a half-dozen different area churches — including Metairie’s St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis Xavier. He was also in charge of the archdiocese’s television and radio broadcasts.
He later served as a military chaplain and settled in Las Vegas in retirement, continuing to volunteer as a priest following his suspension, officials said.
Reached by phone, Highfill referred questions to his attorney, Michael Zerlin of Thibodaux, who declined through a subordinate to respond to detailed questions.
He’s proclaimed his innocence in the unresolved, 2019 lawsuit.
'What he did was inappropriate'
Scot, who served as an altar boy, was 10 when he met Highfill at St. Catherine of Siena. The priest immediately took an interest in him.
“He would come to the house and grab Scot and put him on his lap, and then he would take him to the TV station and promised to get him on TV,” Brandner said.
Loyola University then owned WWL-TV and aired Sunday morning Masses. Highfill put a 12-year-old Scot on the air to read the Epistle and then made him a plaque lauding him as a “television personality.”
Scot wasn’t the only minor Highfill showed an interest in.
One 16-year-old girl who led a service club at an area Catholic high school met Highfill at a Mass at St. Catherine, she said. Highfill invited the girl, who met Scot through him, to help him in ministry.
Sometimes, they ended up alone in his office. He would have her sit on his lap, remark about how “tight” her body felt, give her full-body massages and deep kisses, she said.
“What he did was inappropriate for any man to do to any kid who is 16 years old, much less a priest,” the woman said.
Highfill moved away from New Orleans in 1980, when the woman had reached adulthood. He began sending her letters, including ones in which he told her he loved her and she was irreplaceable.
The letters eventually stopped, and the woman didn’t dwell on Highfill much until she ran into Scot Brandner in 1993.
At 29, working as an anesthesiologist, Scot seemed happy to see his old friend, she recalled.
However, she fears that her mere presence dredged up unhappy memories of their times with Highfill when they were both younger. Weeks later, Scot killed himself with anesthetics.
A bereft Mike Brandner went digging for answers. In Scot’s desk, he found a series of love letters.
They were from Highfill to Scot, beginning in 1981, when he was 17.
“All I can offer you is my home, my heart and my life,” one read. “I was hoping that would be enough. I guess it isn’t.”
Others read: “I love you. … I’ve never loved a person as much as you before.”
When the Catholic Church’s decades-old clergy molestation scandal reignited in 2018 following scores of new revelations, Brandner filed complaints against Highfill with both the New Orleans archdiocese and the Diocese of Las Vegas.
The letters Brandner produced don’t explicitly mention that he engaged in sexual behavior with an underage Scot. But at least one Las Vegas church official acknowledged that they needed further scrutiny.
In an e-mail submitted as evidence in the 2019 lawsuit, the Las Vegas diocese’s clergy abuse victims coordinator told other church officials that they were inappropriate “and could mask grooming behavior.”
Brandner said a diocesan official told him Highfill would no longer be allowed to publicly minister in Las Vegas. However, like the New Orleans archdiocese, the Las Vegas church didn’t include him in a list of credibly accused priests it subsequently released.
Aymond instead sent Highfill a Nov. 28, 2018, letter informing him that the archbishop had decided to suspend him while the archdiocese investigated “possible inappropriate behavior between you and a minor.”
The archdiocese’s review board had evaluated some preliminary information and “unanimously advised … that the complaint is serious and requires further investigation.”
The public only learned of Highfill’s suspension when a reporter asked the archdiocese about the 2019 lawsuit from the plaintiff who alleged Highfill sexually assaulted him in 1983, on his 22nd birthday, at a northern Louisiana Air Force base.
The allegations closely mirrored a 2004 claim the plaintiff had filed with the Veterans Administration. The man said he drank heavily, passed out on a recliner, and woke up to find Highfill beginning to initiate oral sex.
“I got dressed yelling obscenities and cursing at him,” the man said in his disability claim. “He hid and locked himself in the bathroom.”
'Brought to justice'
Brandner knows that man’s attorney and allowed him to share Scot’s story in the lawsuit to strengthen his case. Then, earlier this year, Scot Brandner’s female friend read a newspaper article about that suit and contacted the plaintiff’s attorney, offering to be a witness. That attorney put the woman in touch with Brandner, and she spoke numerous times with archdiocesan officials as they investigated Highfill ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.
The slow progress frustrated Brandner. He recorded a heated telephone conversation in April in which he repeatedly asked Aymond what the holdup was.
One problem was that the love letters weren’t “explicit enough” on their own to put Highfill on the list, Aymond told him. Yet Aymond assured him church investigators were “trying to get as much as (they) can give to” the review board for its decision.
“We want this brought to conclusion,” Aymond said. “We want this brought to justice.”
Brandner asked whether Aymond could tell him how many people had accused Highfill at that point, appealing to the archbishop’s repeated promises for transparency in the investigation of abuse claims.
Aymond said “the law of the United States” prevented him from doing that.
“I really want to be transparent with you,” Aymond said. “And … I really want … to be reconciled with you.”
Brandner replied: “Yeah, well, listen … words are just words. Actions are what really matter.”
Asked what law prevented him from leveling with Brandner, Aymond said there is no such law and it is the archdiocese’s internal policy to withhold such information while claims are under investigation.
The next time Brandner heard from Aymond was in a recent email saying a ruling on Highfill was imminent. After Tuesday’s decision, Aymond issued a statement saying he continued praying for the Brandners’ healing and could not “imagine the pain of losing a child to suicide.”
Even though the process exasperated him, Brandner said he was glad the church now believed Highfill’s accusers.
“It (is) a notification of people to watch out for this guy,” Brandner said.
RELATED: Louisiana Church sex abuse scandal
► Get breaking news from your neighborhood delivered directly to you by downloading the FREE WWL-TV News app now in the IOS App Store or Google Play.