An NFL team has suddenly found itself involved in the years-long scandal of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
On Friday morning, Associated Press reporter Jim Mustian broke the news that the New Orleans Saints are attempting to hide hundreds of emails that allegedly show how the team helped the region’s Roman Catholic archdiocese during a ballooning sexual abuse crisis.
The Saints admitted they helped the Archdiocese of New Orleans with the public response following claims of sexual abuse and the release of a list of “credibly accused” clergy members, but the team is fighting alongside the church to keep those documents private. A court-appointed special master will determine whether the emails remain confidential.
The emails are part of claims filed against the church involving George F. Brignac, a former Roman Catholic deacon who was banned from the ministry and defrocked in 1988 following allegations of child molestation. Brignac remained involved with the church as a lay minister and interacted with children his position with the Knights of Columbus, despite having been barred from public ministry, the AP reported.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the Saints denied any role in attempting to help the church cover up sexual abuse, claiming that senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel was just one of a number of community leaders the church reached out to for help with media attention.
“The advice was simple and never wavering. Be direct, open and fully transparent, while making sure that all law enforcement agencies were alerted. The New Orleans Saints, Greg Bensel and Mrs. Gayle Benson were and remain offended, disappointed and repulsed by the actions of certain past clergy,” the statement said.
The Saints also said they had “no interest” in hiding information:
Attorneys for the men suing the church claim members of the Saints’ public relations team helped the church with its “messaging” following the release of a list of more than 50 clergy members “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. Brignac was among the names on the list.
In one 2018 email exchange, Bensel allegedly asked an archdiocese spokesperson whether there might be “a benefit to saying we support a victims right to pursue a remedy through the courts.”
“I don’t think we want to say we ‘support’ victims going to the courts,” Sarah McDonald, the archdiocese’s communications director, reportedly replied, “but we certainly encourage them to come forward.”
Bensel has worked for the Saints for more than 23 years, and is a trusted adviser to Benson, according to the New Orleans Advocate.
“Obviously, the Saints should not be in the business of assisting the Archdiocese, and the Saints’ public relations team is not in the business of managing the public relations of criminals engaged in pedophilia,” the attorneys for men suing the church wrote in a court filing.
It’s unclear why members of the Saints’ public relations team worked to help the church with their public messaging. But Gayle Benson, the owner of both the Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans, is a devout Catholic and a close friend of New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who is a regular guest of hers at both Saints and Pelicans games.
Benson has given millions of dollars to Catholic institutions in the New Orleans area. She and her late husband, billionaire Tom Benson, were awarded the “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” for their service to Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Benson once showed the pope his Super Bowl ring during a meeting at the Vatican.
In court filings, attorneys representing the Saints said it was “outrageous” to suggest the team helped conceal crimes committed by the church. The attorneys also said the emails should remain private and not become “fodder for the public.”
E. Dirk Wegmann, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said earlier this month the attempt to make the Saints’ emails public was a “proverbial witch hunt with respect to decades-old abuse" which they would use to “unfairly try to tar and feather the archdiocese.”