A new lawsuit contends that a priest who worked in area churches in the 1970s after being ordained by the Archdiocese of New Orleans was involved in two separate incidents of sexual misconduct decades ago.
The suit, filed Wednesday in Orleans Civil District Court, alleges that Henry Brian Highfill, who most recently served in a church parish in Las Vegas, repeatedly drugged and sexually assaulted a young man in the early 1980s in Alexandria, Louisiana. The suit also alleges that Highfill maintained “an intimate and improper relationship” beginning in the mid-1970s with a former Metairie altar boy who committed suicide in 1993.
The suit is the latest of several allegations where a victim is demanding monetary damages from local Catholic Church officials after dioceses across Louisiana began publishing rosters of dead or inactive clerics suspected of sexually abusing children or vulnerable adults.
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But it also stands apart from others filed in recent months because Highfill's name does not appear on the lists issued by church leaders in New Orleans or Las Vegas. Most of the allegations that have been made since Archbishop Gregory Aymond released a list of 57 credibly-accused clergy in November have targeted those individuals, all of whom are dead or have been publicly removed from ministry.
Archdiocesan officials said Highfill has been suspended from ministry since August, when Aymond first became aware of the late altar boy's case. He has yet to be removed.
"We do not make it a practice to comment on pending litigation. However, when the archbishop was made aware of the allegations in August 2018, an investigation was opened and remains open," said Sarah McDonald, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. "The priest in question was suspended from active ministry and remains suspended as the investigation continues."
According to the lawsuit, Highfill remains under the authority of the New Orleans archdiocese because it ordained him in 1974.
Past practice of officials in New Orleans suggests that the reason Highfill has not yet been named publicly by the church is that the internal investigation has not yet been completed. The lawsuit contends that dioceses in Pennsylvania and Nevada each reviewed some of the allegations against Highfill and found them credible.
Highfill rejected the charges during a brief phone conversation Wednesday.
"I can tell you I deny sexual misconduct with anyone," he said.
The suit comes as Aymond and the nation’s Catholic bishops are gathered in Baltimore for a four-day meeting aimed at strengthening accountability on complaints tied to the long-standing, clergy sexual abuse crisis.
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The archdiocese is a defendant alongside two insurers and Highfill.
The suit presents two tangled sequences of events which the plaintiff’s attorneys said leave “no doubt that … church authorities are incapable of taking real action to provide healing to victims and their families, rather than protecting known sexual predators.”
One begins this past fall, when the unnamed man who filed Wednesday’s suit contacted his hometown diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and accused Highfill of sexual assault.
The plaintiff described enlisting in the U.S. Air Force and being stationed in 1982 at a base in the Louisiana city of Alexandria. Highfill, who had left St. Catherine of Siena in 1975, had landed there as a civilian military chaplain after serving at five different churches in the New Orleans region between 1975 and 1980, the suit said.
Highfill allegedly invited the plaintiff several times to spend the night at his house in nearby Pineville, rubbing his back, groping his testicles and making the plaintiff so uncomfortable he started turning down invites.
The plaintiff — then in his early 20s — said he resumed visits with Highfill after the chaplain promised to cut out the touching. But, during one visit, the plaintiff accepted alcohol and a “nerve pill” from Highfill before passing out, waking up in a recliner “with Highfill on his knees in front of him appearing to start to perform oral sex,” the lawsuit alleges.
On other occasions, after accepting Highfill’s alcohol and pills, the plaintiff would pass out and wake up “in various states of undress,” with no recollection of what had occurred, the suit claimed.
The plaintiff eventually received a discharge from the military and “became totally disabled due to the sexual abuse from Highfill,” said the lawsuit, prepared by local attorneys Soren Gisleson, Jed Cain, John Denenea and Richard Trahant, who have other abuse suits pending against the church.
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Scranton archdiocesan officials ultimately paid for the plaintiff to receive medical care and psychological treatment, the suit said.
The plaintiff sued for damages after being told that any additional compensation would be the responsibility of New Orleans officials, who — along with their Las Vegas counterparts — had been notified of the Scranton payments, according to the lawsuit.
McDonald said in her statement that archdiocesan officials contacted Scranton on Wednesday to seek information on the allegations.
According to the plaintiff, the second sequence of events outlined in his suit — involving the late, unidentified altar boy's family — buttresses his claim.
The suit says the ex-altar boy was 10 when he met Highfill at Metairie's St. Catherine of Siena Church in 1974. He committed suicide at age 29 in 1993, and shortly after, his relatives found numerous letters and cards from Highfill expressing “love, affection and yearning” for him.
One — dated Dec. 1, 1983, when the victim was about 19 — depicted Highfill feeling as if he’d “lost” the man and wanting “so badly to know that we have true commitment to one another.”
“I’m not ashamed to tell you that I need your friendship, love and especially your presence,” the letter said. “I’ve … never loved a person as much as you before either.”
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Believing the letters strongly hinted at an “improper relationship” that possibly began when he was a minor, the man’s family presented them to the New Orleans archdiocese by early 1994, the lawsuit said. But an unidentified official ultimately told the family he did not believe the letters were “significant,” and nothing else was done, the suit said.
The man’s family again called the New Orleans archdiocese last summer, after the Catholic Church’s longstanding issue of clergy abuse again fell under a spotlight following a Pennsylvania grand jury report outlining hundreds of previously unreported cases in that state. But again, the suit said, nothing happened.
The family soon learned Highfill was working in Las Vegas and forwarded its information to the diocese there.
A church investigator there interviewed the family, witnesses, and Highfill, according to the lawsuit, which ultimately resulted in “an expert psychologist’s opinion that the allegations of a sexual and improper relationship between Father Highfill and (the late man) were credible and believable.”
According to the lawsuit, the investigator in September 2018 shared his opinion with the late man's family that “Highfill should not be an active priest in Las Vegas.”
Yet the investigator allegedly said only the New Orleans Archdiocese — which was aware of his opinion — could strip him of his ministry for good.
The suit argues that statutes of limitations barring plaintiffs from seeking damages for long-ago conduct don’t apply in the face of "fraudulent concealment," which it accuses church officials of engaging in with Highfill.
A statement from the plaintiff's legal team added, “The church, like most every other big company, is incapable of policing itself. (Its) redemption will come from a New Orleans jury after a full trial on the inner workings of the church.”