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Report: Saints fight release of emails allegedly advising Catholic church in sex abuse scandal

New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson is close with the New Orleans archbishop. (AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

The New Orleans Saints are fighting the public release of hundreds of emails allegedly showing team executives assisting the local Roman Catholic archdiocese in containing fallout from the church’s growing sexual abuse crisis, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The catholic church is still dealing with the long-standing crisis of sexual abuse committed by priests. The emails came out in the discovery period of a lawsuit filed by more than 20 men against the church for employing a deacon and lay minister even after claims of sexual abuse.

Saints owner Gayle Benson, who is Catholic and also owns the New Orleans Pelicans, has a close friendship with New Orleans archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was at her side during her husband Tom’s funeral in 2018. The church is also fighting the release of the emails, per the AP.

Attorneys: Saints helped conceal sexual abuse crimes

Attorneys for the men say the Saints helped the Archdiocese of New Orleans in its “pattern and practice of concealing crimes” and are using 276 documents obtained in discovery as their proof, per the AP.

“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 wrote in a court filing, per the Associated Press. “The Saints realize that if the documents at issue are made public, this professional sports organization also will be smearing itself.”

Their attorneys say “multiple” higher-ups with the Saints, including senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel, advised church officials using their official NFL.com emails, per AP. They allege the assistance was about softening the impact of releasing the list of local clergy members “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

That list was released Nov. 2 and consisted of 57 clergymen, a number that has since grown.

Via the Associated Press:

A handful of Saints emails that emerged last year in the clergy abuse litigation included an October 2018 exchange in which Bensel asked an archdiocese spokeswoman 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, replied, “but we certainly encourage them to come forward.”

Saints attorneys call claims ‘outrageous’

Saints attorneys said in court papers the claims were “outrageous,” per the AP, and that the emails were intended to be private. They did acknowledge the team assisted the church, but said it was about “the opposite of concealment” in helping them publish the clergy list of those credibly accused.

The Saints released a statement Friday afternoon saying the team has “no interest in concealing information from the press or public” and was one of a handful of community and civil leaders the Archdiocese reached out to “seeking counsel.”

The team said it asked the court to apply the “normal rules of civil discovery,” hence its ask that the emails not be released.

The statement reads, in part (with emphasis by the team):

Greg Bensel, Senior Vice President of Communications for the New Orleans Saints, was contacted and offered input on how to work with the media. 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. We remain steadfast in support of the victims who have suffered and pray for their continued healing.

AP files to release emails

The AP filed a motion with the court to release the emails, arguing they aren’t from “intensely private individuals” but “well-known mega-institutions that collect millions of dollars from local residents to support their activities.”

The Benson family has donated to Catholic institutions, including Gayle’s record $5 million to Jesuit High School a year ago, and the archbishop is a guest of the owner at games. In March 2019, Benson wrote an op-ed for The Advocate promoting the “great work of the Catholic Church.”

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