Baton Rouge Bishop Michael Duca has hired a law firm and an auditing firm to scrutinize clergy files and to help the Catholic Diocese complete a list of clerics who were credibly accused of sexual abuse, which should become public by the end of January 2019.
Catholic bishops across the state have announced intentions to release names of credibly accused clergy members, but Duca is the only one thus far who has announced a third-party review of files. Duca said in an interview Saturday that he wants the Diocese of Baton Rouge to receive the equivalent of a clean audit once all records have been inspected.
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The Catholic Diocese has retained Baton Rouge-based Hebert, Spencer and Fry law firm to review files going back to the beginning of the diocese in 1961. The firm brought in auditors from Postlethwaite & Netterville to help.
“My concern was that this is a difficult process in so many ways,” Duca said. “And I wanted to do it in a way that would have as much credibility as possible. ... This will give us a chance to know every file was looked at, at least two sets of eyes on everything, sometimes three sets of eyes.”
Auditors began work this week, and Duca said neither he nor his staff is involved in the outside review.
The diocese will not hold back any information from auditors, he said. They maintain two sets of files — regular personnel files and a separate, more confidential set that detail accusations of abuse against clergy members. Auditors will review both sets, as well as the list of New Orleans accused clergy members who had ties to Baton Rouge.
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The review will take several a minimum of four to six weeks, and Duca said he will use the work from the law firm and auditors to create the list of "credibly and substantially accused clergy."
He wants to release the list after U.S. bishops go on a retreat in early 2019. All U.S. bishops will meet in Baltimore next week to vote on a series of reforms meant to make bishops more accountable for abuse and cover-ups. Duca has thrown his support behind those measures.
Duca said a victim’s assistance coordinator for the diocese stays in touch with those who have been abused long after an initial accusation. He encouraged those who want counseling and other help to reach out to the diocese.
“As Pope Francis says, we really take seriously that we accompany them on their journey, we continue to offer support,” he said.
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Duca said the diocese is still working through the definition for “credibly accused,” and said they will likely categorize their list similarly to the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The Archdiocese divided its list of 57 credibly accused clerics into sections for those who are still alive but removed from ministry, those who were accused after their deaths and others.
The potential number of clergy members on Baton Rouge’s list remains fuzzy. In 2004, the Diocese of Baton Rouge reported that 10 diocesan priests and 13 priests from religious orders who served in Baton Rouge had been accused of sexual abuse.
The list should include former Bishop Joseph Sullivan, as the diocese has settled at least two lawsuits related to his abuse. Another who will likely be named is Christopher Springer, who was accused by at least 30 people by 2010 of sexual abuse. Springer admitted his abuse in a 2009 affidavit from a lawsuit against the diocese. Lawsuit records and newspaper archives show that he was supposed to be defrocked in 1985.
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In 2002, the diocese settled a lawsuit related to Daniel Lemoine, who was accused of abusing a teenage boy in the 1990s. And in 2004, the diocese settled a lawsuit about John Berube, when four men said he abused them as children in 1965.
The eight credibly accused Archdiocese of New Orleans priests with ties to Baton Rouge were Pierre Celestin Cambiaire, John Franklin, Lawrence Hecker, Gerard “Jerry” Howell, Michael Hurley, Ralph Lawrence, Malcolm Strassel and John Weber. Half spent time in Baton Rouge before the Diocese of Baton Rouge existed separately from the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“Yes, it’s hard to see, it’s hard to face our responsibility at first,” Duca said. “And now we have the power to have healing and to work unbelievably hard in the future to keep this from happening again in our church.”
For centuries, Louisiana’s Catholic Church has attracted devout followers drawn to the faith because it answers their search for truth.
Duca wrote a letter to Catholics about the abuse crisis and review process that will be read at all masses this weekend.
In the letter, Duca said he wanted to update parishioners on “my progress on the list of clergy who have been credibly accused of wrongdoing in the Diocese of Baton Rouge from the diocese's founding in July, 1961. I do not mean to be disrespectful regarding the seriousness of this matter by simply calling it ‘wrongdoing,’ but I do so with an awareness of sensitive young ears attending Mass today."
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