A Catholic priest who ingratiated himself with the deaf community and who helped to open Catholic deaf centers in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans secretly preyed on children there during the 1960s and 1970s before he was removed as a priest, his victims recalled Friday as the Archdiocese of New Orleans released the names of 57 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.
The Rev. Gerard “Jerry” Howell was assigned to St. Pius X in Baton Rouge as well as eight churches across the New Orleans area before he was removed from ministry in 1980, according to records the Archdiocese of New Orleans released Friday. Howell was appointed director of the New Orleans deaf apostolate in 1967 and moved in 1978 to help establish the St. Francis de Sales deaf center in Baton Rouge.
He was one of eight priests accused of sexual abuse on the list from the Archdiocese of New Orleans who had ministered in the Diocese of Baton Rouge over the last decade. Howell, who is still alive, could not be reached Friday.
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Howell could communicate with sign language, was known for his generosity in helping deaf people find jobs and even drew praise from high-profile politicians like former Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Rep. Lindy Boggs, according to a 1976 issue of Deaf American magazine. But behind closed doors, he manipulated children into believing nobody could love them and sexually abused them, according to two of his survivors who spoke Friday to The Advocate.
Darlene Austin, who said she was abused as a child in New Orleans and who now lives in Baton Rouge, said Friday that she was thankful the Archdiocese of New Orleans had helped to connect her to therapy, but that it could have done more.
“There was still a tendency to sweep things under the rug and not admit to anything,” Austin said. “Having these names out there will definitely cause some people to start having memories and to say, 'Oh my God, that’s what happened to me.'”
The Archdiocese of New Orleans is the first in the state to release the names of priests who are credibly accused of sexual abuse, but the Diocese of Baton Rouge is also examining its records and intends to release names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. It’s unclear how many priests will appear on Baton Rouge’s list, as the Diocese of Baton Rouge was formed in 1961 and is far younger than New Orleans.
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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. Late that year, the diocese settled a lawsuit with a man who said that the former Baton Rouge Bishop Joseph Sullivan abused him starting in 1975.
Of the eight priests with Baton Rouge connections who appeared on the list published by the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Friday, half were accused of abuse during the time that the Diocese of Baton Rouge existed. Howell was among them.
Lawrence Hecker — who spent time at St. Mary in New Roads — was accused of abuse in 1996 and removed from ministry in 2002. Malcolm Strassel, who was a priest at St. Agnes in Baton Rouge, died in 1987 but was accused of abuse in 2006. And John Weber, a priest who served in Assumption Parish and at St. Ann in Morganza, died in 2000 and was accused of abuse in 2005. The New Orleans records do not detail whether any of the abuse accusations were from a time when the priests served in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
Strassel was accused of fondling the genitals of a boy while he was a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Uptown New Orleans from 1969 through 1971, according to court records. The Archdiocese of New Orleans settled claims against Strassel in 2009.
The remaining priests named Friday served in Baton Rouge before the diocese was carved out.
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John Franklin — who was a priest in Ascension and Donaldsonville — was accused of abuse in 1959, removed from ministry that year and his date of death is unknown. Michael Hurley — who was a priest at St. Agnes in Baton Rouge — was accused of abuse in 1945, left the archdiocese in 1955 and died in 2005. Ralph Lawrence — who was a priest at St. Anthony in Baton Rouge — was accused of abuse in 1935, took a leave of absence that year and died in 1992.
The oldest case was Pierre Celestin Cambiaire. He was a priest at St. George in Baton Rouge and St. Joseph in Grosse Tete, and he was accused of abuse in 1917, removed from ministry the same year and died in 1955.
“The Diocese of Baton Rouge wants the list it will publish to be accurate and complete when released and to include the names of every priest who has served in the diocese who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors,” the diocese said in a statement late Friday. It reiterated that Baton Rouge Bishop Michael Duca wants the diocese to be attentive to justice and show concern for victims.
Other past Baton Rouge priests who have been accused of sexual abuse based on The Advocate’s archives and lawsuits against the Diocese include Christopher Springer, Daniel Lemoine and John Berube.
As for Howell, his connection to the deaf community gave him access to many young children. The former St. Francis de Sales Catholic Center for the Deaf was located near the Louisiana School for the Deaf on Brightside Lane in Baton Rouge. Howell’s brother, Rodney, was also a priest who was accused of abuse before his death in 1993.
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Shari Bernius said Jerry Howell abused her when she was a child at Holy Trinity in New Orleans from the time she was around seven years old to age 12 or 13. Bernius said Howell would find a fault about each child to pick on, and for her, it was her weight. She still struggles with the way she views her weight now, but she said she tells herself that she cannot think that way or she will let Howell “win the battle.”
“He was very manipulative, he used our parents, their disability, to his advantage by gaining trust with them,” Bernius remembered. “And once he gained trust with them, he began to molest the children. I wasn’t the only one, there were many children.”
Bernius remembered Jerry Howell leaving New Orleans, going years without seeing him, and then seeing him against at a baby’s christening when she was 19 years old. She saw him rub a little girl across the chest the way he used to do to her, and it emboldened her to approach to archdiocese about the abuse.
It did not, however, affect her faith in God and her Catholicism. Bernius is now the administrator for the Deaf Action Center of Catholic Charities in New Orleans. She said she’s happy that the archdiocese has released its list of names, and that she hopes it will help to begin the healing process.
It’s been harder for Austin to keep her trust in Catholic leadership. She said she still believes in God, but it’s hard for her to step into a Catholic church because of Howell's actions.
“I have no desire to see that man,” she said. “I just hope he rots in hell.”