NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and one of the local Catholic Church’s most vocal critics of its handling of the clerical sexual molestation crisis announced a detente Wednesday, pledging to collaborate on preventing further child abuse and ensuring justice for victims.
In a joint statement from Aymond and Kevin Bourgeois, the leader of the New Orleans chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the two sides said they would create “a program for healing for victims of abuse” aimed at “rebuilding trust between them and the church.”
“Though we may have different ideas and methods, we have common goals: healing for victims, their families and prevention of abuse,” the statement from both men said. “Let us be clear: Clergy sexual abuse is a scandal, it is a sin, and it cannot be tolerated.”
The release was light on details and didn’t provide information on any specific plans or initiatives. Still, it marked a notable thawing of relations between two men who had been clashing publicly for nearly 18 months.
In August 2019, nearly a year after Aymond released his list of clerics strongly suspected of child sexual abuse, Bourgeois accused Aymond of turning a blind eye to molestation that Bourgeois endured as a teen in the early 1980s at the hands of a late priest whom both men knew. Aymond has been contrite over the abuse Bourgeois suffered but denied ever being in a position to stop it.
As a leader of SNAP, Bourgeois has repeatedly insisted on Aymond’s resignation, demands that the archbishop has bristled over.
Multiple priests have told WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate that the archbishop blamed Bourgeois and SNAP for mischaracterizing Aymond’s handling of various cases at the heart of the clerical abuse scandal. Aymond said he's never criticized Bourgeois individually but maintains SNAP collectively has occasionally misunderstood his actions.
However, the pair’s statement Wednesday said they met Dec. 15 and buried the hatchet “after months of indirect and unproductive communicating.”
Aymond and Bourgeois said their meeting last month “was a positive first step” in which they acknowledged each other’s pain and drew lessons from their respective experiences.
“While no direct action is a result as of yet, this has opened the door to ongoing communications and an openness to working together to protect children from abuse and ensure that current survivors receive the dignity, justice and healing they deserve,” the joint statement said. “While this meeting was a good start, we know well that what is most important is what actions are taken as a result.”
Bourgeois was 16 and a student at the now-shuttered St. John Vianney Prep when, in 1983, his former choir director — a priest named Carl Davidson — began molesting him.
Davidson died in 2007. But amid the fallout of the worldwide church’s decades-old clerical abuse scandal, Aymond in November 2018 included Davidson on a list of priests and deacons who had been credibly accused of child molestation over the years, a roster which has since expanded to more than 70 names.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans paid Bourgeois $150,000 and provided two years of therapy to settle his grievances. The agreement contained a confidentiality clause. But Bourgeois said he never requested confidentiality, so in 2019 he spoke publicly about his abuse, the settlement money he received and how he had relaunched the New Orleans chapter of SNAP, a group which advocates for clerical molestation victims.
Bourgeois also expressed his belief that Aymond, who earlier in his career worked with Davidson at St. John and lived near him at Notre Dame Seminary, failed to capitalize on opportunities to intervene and put a stop to the abuse. Aymond vehemently denied that was true, saying he didn’t learn until decades later that Bourgeois had been abused or he otherwise would have acted against Davidson.
Another Davidson victim who was a former priest later told WWL-TV and the newspaper that he informed Aymond of his abuse back in 1989. Aymond, then a high-ranking priest in charge of Notre Dame Seminary, said he reported those claims immediately to the archbishop at the time but had no power to act further.
Since then, Bourgeois has staged protests outside both the archdiocese’s Walmsley Avenue headquarters and St. Louis Cathedral, the Church’s spiritual home in New Orleans.
He often would hold a sign reading “Aymond must go” and question the archbishop’s sincerity in coming clean about the true number of clergy molesters who have worked in New Orleans, saying the clerical abuse list was incomplete.
He has also criticized the archdiocese’s decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, arguing the choice primarily had to do with indefinitely halting lawsuits which were producing embarrassing disclosures.
The archdiocese has said it needed to file for bankruptcy because its finances had been strained by the cost of litigating clerical abuse cases as well as shutdowns associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Bourgeois — a licensed clinical social worker by trade — on Wednesday said those differences are in the past. Last month, they met over two hours for “lunch and … frank conversation” and pledged to continue the dialogue moving forward.
"We agree on far more than we disagree on," Aymond said.