Prepared to Be Shocked by New Orleans Church Officials

by | Oct 21, 2023 | Catholic Church, Firm News

New Orleans Archdiocese Horowitz Law

Wow. That’s the reaction here at Horowitz Law to the latest revelations in Louisiana’s largest and deeply troubled Catholic diocese: The Archdiocese of New Orleans. In just one news story, allegations that detail almost all of the irresponsible and heinous behaviors exhibited by clerics who commit and conceal child sex crimes are laid bare. We acknowledge that most of what follows are accusations yet to be proven or disproven. However, at the same time, it’s important to note that the predator in this case pleaded guilty in criminal court. Some of it is based on recordings of phone conversations and official police documents, which also lends credibility to the startling allegations. But if even a few of the accusations in The Guardian’s article this week are deemed valid, it will be a huge blow to an already-embattled prelate, Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

That story accuses Catholic officials in New Orleans of releasing private information about an abuse survivor and trying to intimidate, discredit, and shame him while at the same time ordaining an already-accused predator, protecting him, and showing favoritism to the wealthy. It also charges that archdiocesan staff – and even one or two big donors – with essentially tampering with a predator’s prosecution. 

Oh, yes, and throw in an allegedly quiet offer of a $400,000 payout and supposedly missing church records about an earlier abuse accusation. That’s a lot of alleged wrongdoing in one news story. Bear with us as we try to outline much of this. But first, a quick word about the victim. He’s the son of a former journalist and host of a Catholic television show, and the ex-president of Jefferson parish – a suburban New Orleans community – and once a candidate for lieutenant governor of Louisiana.” What’s the relevance of this? It’s an important reminder that predators do NOT exclusively target the single-parent family, the child of alcoholic adults, or the struggling teenager who’s run afoul of the law. Child molesters will assault virtually any youngster they can. Solid, well-to-do parents in healthy relationships cannot afford to be lax about who they trust around their children.

Under the headline “Why did church take so long to admit New Orleans deacon was a child abuser?,” journalists Ramon Antonio Vargas and David Hammer lay out a tale that is so sordid that it can only be described as shocking, even to those of us who have represented SCORES? / HUNDREDS? of abuse victims across the country.

The basics of the original crime are succinctly summarized in a news story like this: Deacon VM Wheeler was “ordained in 2018 by the New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Over the next four years, he would be accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy in the early 2000s, suspended from ministry, arrested on suspicion of raping the child, charged with aggravated sexual battery, accused in a lawsuit of trying to pay the victim $400,000 to stop working with police, and – in December 2022 – pleaded guilty to indecent behavior with a juvenile.”

Let’s start with the fact that an abusive cleric was formally promoted, gaining an important title, just five years ago. And let’s get back to those tapes and records. The reporters covering this story “have obtained police interviews and secret recordings that raise fresh questions about why Wheeler wasn’t added to the (archdiocese’s ‘credibly accused’ abusers) list much sooner, how the archbishop and other church leaders (heard) repeated complaints against Wheeler, and why prominent Catholics with close ties to Aymond were able to try to intimidate a victim whose identity the church was sworn to protect.”

The simplest part of this whole mess is the archdiocesan delay in adding Deacon Wheeler’s name to the archdiocesan ‘credibly accused’ abusers list. Remember: he pled guilty. And remember: it took nearly a year of prodding by the victim and the journalists to get Archbishop Aymond to relent and take this grudging, belated, most minimal step towards honesty.

Here are two shamefully self-serving excuses church officials cited for the delay:

  • A few months ago, a church spokesperson told a news outlet that Deacon Wheeler was kept off the list because the abuse happened before his ordination. The reporters point out that another New Orleans predator priest, Fr. Paul Calamari, is on Aymond’s ‘credibly accused’ list for molesting in the 1970s, before his ordination in 1980.)
  • A church lawyer tried to explain away the archbishop’s refusal to be straightforward and publicly name Deacon Wheeler as a ‘credibly accused’ predator by claiming, “We don’t interfere with ongoing civil or criminal litigation.” 

But in at least two other recent cases, the journalist’s note (Fr. Patrick Wattigny and Fr. Brian Highfill, “Aymond added priests to the list while criminal or civil cases were pending against them.” Will Catholic officials never tire of parsing words, splitting hairs, and inventing phony reasons to ham-handedly justify their continuing obsession with secrecy and deceit? From here, sadly, the story just gets worse and worse. We encourage you to read the whole account on The Guardian.

Here is perhaps the worst part of the story: “Someone from Deacon Wheeler’s criminal defense team at one point dropped off a packet on the doorstep of (the victim’s lawyer’s) office containing confidential medical records,” write the journalists. “Those records were created during a 2010 stint that (the victim) had in a drug addiction rehabilitation program.” 

In at least two ways, what a despicable act by both Deacon Wheeler AND his lawyer. (Thankfully, in civil litigation, such violations are rare.) Archbishop Aymond denies having played any role in this part of the scandal. First, of course, there’s the violation of an individual’s privacy (and the likely HIPAA violations by Deacon Wheeler and his lawyer to get the medical records.)

Second, there’s the implication that the victim has done something wrong when, most likely, the abuse inflicted on him by Deacon Wheeler led him to his addiction.

We won’t go into a broader discussion of all the troubling revelations and allegations of child sex crimes and cover-ups in the New Orleans Archdiocese that have surfaced over the past year or so. Here are a few:

Before leaving this topic, let’s hear directly from this brave victim: “It’s hard enough for the general population to accept this (abuse) happens,” McCall said, alluding to the skepticism that meets many clergy abuse survivors when they come forward. “And then you have these elite people stepping in to cover up, to pay off people. It’s not right. It’s illegal and a huge part of the problem.” We’ll close by perhaps stating a few simple truths that bear emphasizing here.

We at Horowitz Law aren’t police, prosecutors, judges or jurors. We can’t criminally prosecute church wrongdoers in New Orleans. We at Horowitz Law don’t own newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, or billboards. We can’t publicly shame Catholic officials into acting less hurtfully.

What we can do is find and help those who saw, suspected, or suffered abuse by Catholic employees and volunteers throughout Louisiana and help them expose church staffers who perpetrated, ignored, or hid one of the worst crimes imaginable: the sexual violation of a child or teen by a trusted adult who claimed to be one of God’s representatives on earth. We can help the wounded find some degree of justice, healing, closure, comfort, and compensation. But only if victims or their loved ones contact us. Please spread the word.

(NOTE: A second accused predator priest is mentioned in the news story. He is Fr. John Asare-Dankwah.)

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.