NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints headed to court Thursday in a bid to block the release of hundreds of confidential emails detailing the behind-the-scenes public relations work the team did for the area’s Roman Catholic archdiocese amid its sexual abuse crisis.
The request comes amid claims that the NFL team joined the Archdiocese of New Orleans in a “pattern and practice” of concealing sexual abuse — an allegation the Saints have vehemently denied.
Attorneys for some two dozen men suing the church say the emails show team officials had a say in deciding which priests the archdiocese named on a 2018 list of dozens of “credibly accused” clergy members, a roster an Associated Press analysis found was undercounted by at least 20 names.
The Saints say their involvement was limited to a team executive preparing church leaders for the publicity surrounding the credibly accused list.
Retired Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson will hear arguments Thursday and recommend whether the 276 documents in question should be made public. She was appointed “special master” in the dispute by an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge overseeing a lawsuit against the archdiocese over a longtime deacon accused of abusing schoolchildren decades ago.
The AP filed a motion urging the release of the emails, calling the communications a matter of “utmost public concern.”
The news organization argued in court papers that the Saints and church leaders have not proved the documents are confidential, and that any privacy interests they have “are minimal compared to the public’s concern about the roles the Archdiocese and the Saints played in managing public opinion.”
The Saints say they have nothing to hide but have asked Gill-Jefferson to apply “the normal rules of civil discovery” in the lawsuit, rather than allowing attorneys for the men suing the church to “selectively disseminate” the emails before trial. The team has said it does not oppose the emails being made public at a later stage of the litigation.
“The Saints motion to maintain confidentiality is not rooted in a desire to conceal information,” Saints attorneys wrote in court filings last week.
Team owner Gayle Benson, a devout Catholic who has donated millions of dollars to church causes, said last week she is proud of the role the team played in assisting the archdiocese, efforts she said were part of a bid to help “heal the community.”
Benson, who inherited the team following her husband Tom Benson’s 2018 death, said the team’s senior vice president of communications advised Archbishop Gregory Aymond to be “honest, complete and transparent” about clergy abuse.
The attorneys for the men suing the church, however, have said the Saints and archdiocese have misled the public about their coordination and the contents of the emails.
They argued in court papers that the public has a right to know “whether this is an untoward relationship designed not only to mitigate the PR fallout from the church sexual abuse crisis but also to spin some of the underlying facts.”