NEW ORLEANS — No decision was made immediately Thursday after a civil court hearing to determine whether emails between officials from the New Orleans Saints and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans will be made public.
Attorneys for the Saints, the archdiocese, The Associated Press and plaintiffs suing the church over sexual abuse allegations made arguments before retired Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, who was appointed as a “special master” in the case. Gill-Jefferson said she will give her recommendation on how to proceed to presiding Judge Ellen Hazeur after reviewing Thursday’s arguments and the briefs that were submitted by attorneys.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused Saints officials of aiding the church in its “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes” by helping to shape the church’s public relations response while releasing the names of clergy members who have been credibly accused of abuse.
Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, a devout Catholic and close friend of Archbishop Gregory Aymond, has vehemently denied those claims. Benson and the team have insisted through multiple statements that senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel only offered input on how to work with the media and that his advice was to be “direct, open and fully transparent.”
Church attorney Dirk Wegmann also argued Thursday that Bensel was not working on behalf of the Saints when he offered his counsel — despite using his work email address. But he stressed that neither Benson nor Bensel should be shamed for exercising their Catholic faith and supporting their church.
Wegmann and Saints attorney James Gulotta Jr. argued that the emails should be made public if they are submitted as evidence in trial but that the discovery process is not open to the public. They stressed that they are not trying to block any of the emails from being entered into evidence, but it’s up to the court to determine that through the “normal rules of discovery.”
They claimed that releasing the emails publicly would only serve to annoy, embarrass and bring public scrutiny to high-profile officials through the release of emails that they believe are “irrelevant” to the case.
Meanwhile, attorneys for The AP and the plaintiffs suing the church argued that the Saints have not met their burden of proving that the emails should remain confidential and that the demand for public interest outweighs their right to privacy.
Plantiffs’ attorney Richard Trahant said the Saints’ claim that they had nothing to do with the composition of the list of accused clergy members released by the church was “flatly contradicted by the Saints’ emails.”
And AP attorney Mary Ellen Roy pointed out that the Saints themselves have stressed in their statements that “there is nothing to be embarrassed about” in the emails and that they are proud of their relationship with the church. “They’re trying to have it both ways, saying, ‘Everything was good, everything was fine and dandy. But let us tell you that. Don’t look for yourselves,'” Roy argued.
Trahant said there are a total of 305 documents showing correspondence involving the Saints. He presented one email exchange that has already been made public, in which Bensel asked archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald, “Is there a benefit to saying we support a victim’s right to pursue a remedy through the courts?” And McDonald replied, “I don’t think we want to say we ‘support’ victims going to the courts, but we certainly encourage them to come forward.”
Trahant also chided both the archdiocese and the Saints over their stated desires to be “transparent” while fighting to conceal the information in the emails.