Members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, including Richard Windmann, hold signs in front of the New Orleans Saints training facility in Metairie, Louisiana. The pro football team acknowledged last week that its front office helped church leaders deal with the public relations fallout that followed the publishing a list of local clergymen the archdiocese deemed “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children.
Photo: Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
Photo: Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

UPDATE: NFL’s Saints accused of helping shape clergy sex abuse list

»RELATED: Atlanta Archdiocese releases list of those ‘credibly’ accused of abuse

New court papers filed this week by lawyers for about two dozen men making sexual abuse claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans gave the most detailed description yet of the emails that have rocked the NFL team and remain shielded from the public. 

“This goes beyond public relations,” the attorneys wrote, accusing the Saints of issuing misleading statements saying their work for the archdiocese involved only “messaging” and handling media inquiries as part of the 2018 release of the clergy names. 

Instead, they wrote, “The Saints appear to have had a hand in determining which names should or should not have been included on the pedophile list.”

»MORE: AJC investigation: Hidden history of sex abuse at Ga. boarding school

“In order to fulfill this role ... the Saints must have known the specific allegations of sexual abuse against a priest ... and made a judgment call about whether those allegations by a particular victim against a named priest were, in its opinion, legitimate enough to warrant being included,” the attorneys wrote. They added, “It cannot now be disputed that the Saints had actual involvement in the creation of the pedophile list.” 

New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson is close friends with the local archbishop.
Photo: Butch Dill/Associated Press

That list, the Saints’ role in it and how accurate it was have become key questions in a controversy that has swirled around the team since news of the emails broke last week. 

Victims’ advocates have long argued that the New Orleans Archdiocese’s list of 57 credibly accused clergy, since expanded by six more names, minimizes the problem. An Associated Press analysis of the list suggests it underestimated the actual number of publicly accused clergy members in the region by at least 20. 

»RELATED: Georgia lawmakers don’t give sex abuse survivors more time to sue

Plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in earlier court papers that Saints executives joined in the archdiocese’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes,” and one email from late 2018 referred to Greg Bensel, the Saints’ senior vice president of communications,  joining unnamed “third parties” in a discussion about “removing priests from the pedophile list.” It was not clear which other Saints officials may have been involved. 

The Saints, whose devoutly Catholic owner Gayle Benson is close friends with the local archbishop, have disputed as “outrageous” any suggestion that the team helped cover up crimes. They have accused plaintiffs’ attorneys of mischaracterizing what is in the emails. 

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s archdiocese is embroiled in a scandal.
Photo: David Grunfeld/Associated Press

Even as the team’s attorneys went to court to keep the 276 documents from being released to the public, they said in a court filing this week, “Neither the Saints nor any of their personnel have anything to hide.” The team says it does not object to the emails becoming public later if they are admitted into evidence in the case. 

In a lengthy statement , the Saints said Bensel, the team spokesman, advised the archdiocese to be “direct, open and fully transparent” when it released its list to the media and to make sure all law enforcement agencies were alerted. 

“Never did the Saints organization offer advice to conceal information,” the team’s statement said. “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 the proper authorities.” 

In its own statement Thursday, the New Orleans Archdiocese disputed the plaintiffs’ attorneys on the Saints’ role, saying it was "limited to guidance in releasing information to media” and not advising on the content of the accused clergy list. 

The NFL has not responded to repeated queries from the AP about whether such PR work by the team was appropriate or violated league conduct policies. 

But victims’ advocates say the Saints have at least created the appearance of impropriety. 

“It’s inappropriate for a football team to involve itself in a sex abuse scandal,” said Kevin Bourgeois, who is a local volunteer leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and a Saints season ticket-holder.

Members of SNAP,  including John Gianoli, left, John Anderson, Richard Windmann and Kevin Bourgeois, read a news release from the New Orleans Saints, who deny involvement in trying to cover up a scandal.
Photo: Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

“Their response was that they told the archbishop to be straightforward and open,” said Bourgeois, who wore a black Saints jersey at a news conference this week outside the team’s suburban practice facility. “And we believe that that’s completely not true.”

The AP, which first reported on the Saints’ email controversy last week, filed a motion with the court this month supporting the release of the documents as a matter of public interest.

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