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What The Hell Is Going On With The Saints And The Catholic Church?

Before this weekend’s unending stream of programming proclaiming the greatness of the National Football League, let’s catch up on a truly bizarre story that probably won’t get much mention in the penumbra of the Super Bowl.

Back in July, Ramon Antonio Vargas of the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that a subpoena had been sent to the New Orleans Saints by lawyers representing a man suing the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In the lawsuit, the man, going by John Doe, says he was sexually abused by former Catholic deacon George Brignac and the archdiocese “failed to protect him,” per the paper.

(Brignac was defrocked in 1988 after allegations of child molestation, but he was still reading scriptures and teaching in Catholic schools until 2018. Brignac also has been indicted on one count of aggravated rape of a boy under the age of 12. Brignac has denied the claims in the lawsuit and in criminal court entered a plea of of not guilty. The archdiocese is fighting the lawsuit.)

Why the subpoena of the Saints? The report gave this reason:

“According to attorneys Richard Trahant and John Denenea, the move came after the discovery process turned up documents and emails which, they contend, showed at least one member of the Saints’ administration — longtime public relations chief Greg Bensel — was advising the archdiocese on how to publicly address local claims pertaining to the Catholic Church’s ongoing clergy abuse crisis.”

Jump forward to early January, when the Associated Press reported that John Doe’s lawyers had received 276 documents that “show that the NFL team, whose owner [Gayle Benson] is devoutly Catholic, aided the Archdiocese of New Orleans in its ‘pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.'” The Saints then issued a statement saying, yes, it “always had a very strong relationship with the Archdiocese” and that Bensel had offered advice on “how to work with the media” when asked for it. This one sentence of the Saints’ statement was published in bold: “The advice was simple and never wavering. Be direct, open and fully transparent, while making sure that all law enforcement agencies were alerted.”

The best way to confirm this would be to make the emails public. But the Saints are fighting those efforts in court.

In its statement, the team insisted that it was just asking the judge “to apply the normal rules of civil discovery.” But the AP report noted that, in court filings, the Saints called releasing the emails “fodder for the public.”

So the AP filed a motion asking to make the emails public, and this week lawyers for John Doe filed court documents in support of the AP’s request. In those documents, the attorneys say they now believe the sealed emails show that the Saints helped determine who was and who was not on a list released to the public of “credibly accused clergy that appears to be undercounted,” the AP reported.

The lawyers told the court: “The Saints appear to have had a hand in determining which names should or should not have been included on the pedophile list.” As part of a national project last year, the AP found that the publicly released list was missing at least 20 credibly accused priests.

A Times-Picayune/Advocate report said the filing makes other assertions as well. According to that report, the filing also says the Saints helped pitch “favorable” stories to local media and contacted the president of a local Catholic high school “(which) also has been sued multiple times for child rape.”

The team, in another statement obtained by WLOX-TV, said: “Never did the Saints organization offer advice to conceal information, in fact, we advised that as new information relative to credible evidence about other clergy came to light, then those names should be released and given to proper authorities.” The archdiocese pushed back on what John Doe’s lawyers said, issuing a statement saying: “The role of the New Orleans Saints was limited to guidance in releasing this information to media, not to advise on the content of the report.”

On Friday, an Orleans Parish Civil Court judge said that the AP can move forward with its request to unseal the emails, WWL-TV reported. The next step, per WWL’s Danny Monteverde, will be a hearing before a special master scheduled for February.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests issued a statement after the ruling: “The fact remains that there was never any reason for staff from an NFL organization to get involved in evaluating cases of clergy sexual abuse. If the advice from Saints staff was as innocent as they contend, then we think there should be no reason why the emails should remain hidden. We look forward to greater transparency in this case and for the opportunity for the full truth to be revealed.”