N.O. archbishop sued for defamation
A former New Orleans Catholic priest took the rare step Monday of suing the archbishop, saying Archbishop Alfred Hughes humiliated him when the church announced that the man may have sexually molested a child while serving as a priest at a Metairie parish 30 years ago.
Denying it ever occurred, Bernard Schmaltz sued Hughes for defamation and invasion of privacy
Schmaltz also said Hughes broadcast the allegation against Schmaltz to “deflect attention” from his own “deplorable” conduct as an auxiliary bishop in the early 1990s in Boston, the epicenter of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in the United States.
Bishops who for years quietly transferred molester-priests to new parishes now “are knowingly throwing innocent priests to the wolves to cover up their actions,” Schmaltz said in a statement at the law office of his attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann.
However, the Archdiocese of New Orleans says it handled the complaint against Schmaltz responsibly, balancing the interests of Schmaltz, his accuser and the church.
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The archdiocese’s spokesman, the Rev. William Maestri, also rejected the contention that Hughes turned the complaint against Schmaltz into an “overreaction” for self-serving reasons.
He defended Hughes’ record in Boston, saying Hughes relieved 14 priests of duty on sex-abuse charges during a three-year period when he acted as a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December 2002 amid the controversy.
An unusual confrontation
The lawsuit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, stems from the events of Jan. 23, when the archdiocese convened an unusual Saturday night news conference to announce that a priest, the Rev. Michael Fraser, and a former priest, Schmaltz, had been named in new sexual abuse allegations.
The charge against Schmaltz came from a man who said he had been abused as a 7-year-old at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie, the archdiocese said.
Schmaltz’s lawsuit sets up a unusual confrontation between a man who used to be a Catholic priest and a bishop, who normally have a more complex relationship than that of a mere employee and employer.
Bishops are responsible not only for setting their priests’ work assignments but also for looking after their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Priests respond by offering at ordination a vow of obedience to their bishop, whoever that may be.
However, Hughes never had such a relationship with Schmaltz, who left active ministry as a priest in 1993, nine years before Hughes became New Orleans’ archbishop.
Schmaltz, 56, was ordained in 1973 and for almost 20 years worked at several parishes in Metairie, Houma and New Orleans.
In 1992 he was sued for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old boy during the 1973-74 school year, also at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie. Schmaltz denied any wrongdoing.
At the time, Schmaltz said his priestly service had been tainted by a similar accusation earlier in Houma. He said his superiors ordered him not to defend himself to spare the children from damaging publicity. He said he underwent a nine-month psychological evaluation and in 1986 was posted to a new parish.
Early in 1993 he resigned as pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Gentilly Woods to fight the civil charge. He was supported by the church parish council and then-Archbishop Francis Schulte, who said he believed in Schmaltz’s innocence.
Two years later a court ruled that the civil complaint had been lodged too late to go to trial.
Leaving the ministry
However, Schmaltz did not return to the ministry.
He said doing so would have required standing trial in a church court, which would have heard his accuser’s story. He said his attorney advised against it because a civil judge had already given him a measure of victory in the case by pronouncing the accuser’s recovered memory as unreliable.
Besides, Schmaltz said, he had come to believe his ministry could never recover from the allegation.
Schmaltz forged a new career selling real estate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a job he was doing when the new allegation surfaced earlier this year.
Maestri said the church in January announced the new allegation to demonstrate its determination to be transparent in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against priests.
Maestri later said Hughes and two top aides had reviewed the new complaint against Schmaltz and found it credible. Hughes quickly authorized the announcement, Maestri said.
Because Schmaltz was no longer in ministry, Hughes merely dispatched a letter to Schmaltz reminding him that he was not to function as a priest, Maestri said. Schmaltz on Monday said the letter also told him the archdiocese was launching a preliminary investigation to gain a “clear and specific understanding” of the facts around the new charge.
Schmaltz and Lemann said Monday that Hughes acted rashly, calling a news conference to disclose what Schmaltz called a “frivolous” claim against him before conducting a more thorough inquiry, as they said local archdiocesan policy requires.
A more responsible course, they said, would have been to call local law enforcement and let them conduct a discreet inquiry that might have spared Schmaltz from public disclosure.
Church defends actions
However, Maestri said Hughes followed the policy precisely as written. Maestri said the policy envisions that the local archbishop will make a rapid initial judgment as to whether to take an accused priest out of service and make a public announcement to that effect. A more complete investigation follows to develop a fuller picture, he said.
In any event, a civilian panel reviewing the claim later concurred with Hughes’ judgment, Maestri said. Local police were notified in a way that protected the anonymity of the man lodging the complaint, who insisted on privacy, Maestri said at the time.
The church will continue its investigation and will send its information to Rome. There, it will be decided if a church case should be brought against Schmaltz, and if so, whether Rome or the local church would handle it. Although Schmaltz is no longer an acting priest, the church could choose to formally expel Schmaltz from the priesthood.
Schmaltz said Monday that he and Lemann know who the accuser is, but that Schmaltz has not approached him.
To prevail in court on the defamation claim, the burden is on Schmaltz to prove both that the allegation is false and that it was made with reckless disregard for the truth, said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor.
Ciolino said he thinks Schmaltz’s invasion-of-privacy claim also requires him to prove that the allegation portrayed him falsely, and that the church acted unreasonably in disclosing the charge against him.
Lemann said falsity is less an issue than the announcement’s current relevance.
“In the context of this case, here’s a guy without a flock, no faculties as a priest. It’s a 30-year-old allegation, and in that context I don’t think truth is a defense,” Lemann said.
“It goes to the newsworthiness of the story.”
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Bruce Nolan can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3344.