NEW ORLEANS — A federal bankruptcy judge has ordered the Archdiocese of New Orleans to stop paying retirement benefits to five priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults but are not included on a list of more than 70 clergy the local church considers “credibly accused.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill issued the order Aug. 31, rejecting the local Catholic church’s argument that it should be allowed to keep paying monthly stipends to priests, deacons and lay staff who face claims of sexual abuse in sealed documents that were turned over to the court by the Archdiocese earlier this year.
From the very beginning of its bankruptcy case in May 2020, the Archdiocese tried to argue that it needed protection from dozens of pending sexual abuse lawsuits, but it should be allowed to keep paying retirement benefits to all living clergy – including those on the “credibly accused list” released by Archbishop Gregory Aymond in November 2018 and updated with additional names over the years since.
Grabill quickly ruled in 2020 that living clergy on the Archdiocese’s official list should not continue to get stipends known as “maintenance” payments, although medical coverage could continue. But she has now taken what she called an “extraordinary” step to amend that ruling based on evidence provided by the Archdiocese this year.
In February 2022, Grabill ordered the church to produce additional internal records from the past 10 years, “including, but not limited to, personnel files, Archdiocesan Review Board … findings, and law enforcement referrals, maintained by any and all departments and offices within the Archdiocese — related to all Archdiocesan priests or lay persons serving in ministerial roles that have been accused of sexual abuse, whether placed by the Archbishop on the Credibly Accused List or not and whether named in a proof of claim filed in this case or not.”
Those records were filed with the court under seal. But when attorneys representing sexual abuse victims saw those records, they argued they “substantiate credible accusations of sexual abuse committed by five priests” who were never included by Aymond on the credibly accused list and, therefore, continued to receive full retirement benefits.
Grabill says those payments must now stop, essentially finding that those priests must wait in line for their claims to be paid just like the abuse victims and other church creditors.
“We continue to evaluate the court’s decision in this matter but currently have no other comment,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.
The five priests whose retirement stipends must end are not named. WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate teamed up on investigations in 2020 and 2021 that exposed claims against living priests and clergy who were not on the credibly accused list. Aymond added a few names to that list, but others featured in the news reports were never added.
Those include Metairie deacon VM Wheeler, who was criminally charged in December with molesting an preteen boy in the early 2000s, and the Rev. Luis Fernandez, who is retired in South Florida and declined to answer WWL-TV’s questions about one of his former high school students accusing him of molesting him in the 1970s.
The church tried to argue that its responsibility to take care of retired priests and deacons is not governed by U.S. federal law but by the Catholic Church’s own laws, known as canon law. It argued that clergy would only lose their retirement benefits if they were laicized -- or stripped of their ordination as priests or deacons. Aymond told WWL-TV that he could remove priests and deacons from ministry, but he couldn’t forcibly laicize those who don’t voluntarily agree to leave the priesthood or deaconate. That could only be done by the Vatican.
Grabill rejected the Archdiocese’s argument that she was overstepping her authority.