Why would an NFL team, even one called the Saints, strike a behind-the-scenes alliance with the Roman Catholic Church on an issue as emotionally fraught as clergy sex abuse?
It’s a question even die-hard Saints fans in this heavily Catholic city are asking, and the answer appears to lie in the powerful bond that the team’s devoutly Catholic owner, Tom Benson, and his now-widow Gayle built for years with church leaders.
An Associated Press review of public tax documents found that the Bensons’ foundation has given at least $62 million to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and other Catholic causes over the past dozen years, including gifts to schools, universities, charities and individual parishes.
Along the way, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who knew the couple separately before they married in 2004, has become almost a part of the team, thought by some to bring the beloved Saints help from a higher power.
Aymond has been spotted on the field at Saints games and inside the team’s Superdome box and has flown on the owner’s private jet. He is known for celebrating stirring pregame Masses, including one before the team’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2010, when he correctly predicted victory and joined in a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The archbishop arranged a 2011 meeting of the Bensons with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, where Tom Benson kissed the pontiff’s ring and flashed his own Super Bowl ring. A few years later, he served as a witness to the signing of the will that cut out Tom Benson’s estranged daughter and grandchildren and gave third wife Gayle control of a business empire that included ownership of both the Saints and the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.
And Aymond was there in 2018 after Tom Benson’s death at age 90 to eulogize him as a “New Orleans saint on Earth” and walk side by side with Gayle in the funeral procession. In an honor typically reserved for clerics, Benson was given a two-day public visitation at Notre Dame Seminary, a chateau-style institution renovated with one of the couple’s multimillion-dollar donations.
“Our relationship with past Archbishops and the archdiocese dates back 50 years plus,” Gayle Benson said in a statement this week in response to the AP’s request for comment. “Our faith is the core foundation from which we live our daily lives. Unifying, helping and giving back is not something we do when asked; we do it every day. It defined how Tom Benson ran his organization and how I ardently continue his legacy.”
That bond has received renewed scrutiny after the AP reported last month that hundreds of confidential Saints emails allegedly show that some of the team’s top executives did public relations damage control for the archdiocese in the midst of its clergy abuse crisis.
It’s a controversy that has led fans in New Orleans and beyond to question what exactly the Saints did for the church and whether it was appropriate.
For now, those answers are not yet clear because the team has gone to court to block — or at least delay — the public release of those emails, which emerged as part of the discovery process in a clergy abuse lawsuit. A court hearing is scheduled next week in New Orleans to determine whether the 276 documents may be made public. The AP has filed a motion in support of their release.
Attorneys for about two dozen men bringing clergy sex claims against the church allege in court filings that the emails show the team joined in the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.” The attorneys contend that included taking an active role in helping to shape the archdiocese’s 2018 release of its list of 57 credibly accused clergy, a roster an AP analysis found had omitted at least 20 names.
In her statement, Gayle Benson denied the Saints had any role in selecting the names, saying the team’s Senior Vice President of Communications Greg Bensel was asked only to help prepare church officials for the release of the list.
“His recommendations were consistent with the Archdiocese which included: be honest, complete and transparent,” her statement said. “We are proud of the role we played and yes, in hindsight, we would help again to assist the Archdiocese in its ability to publish the list with the hope of taking this step to heal the community.”
Gayle Benson, a 73-year-old former interior designer and devout Catholic herself with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $3.1 billion, also said that neither she nor her late husband ever contributed to paying settlements or legal awards in the church’s clergy abuse crisis.
“To suggest that I would offer money to the Catholic Church for anything related to the clergy molestation issue sickens me,” she wrote.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys Richard Trahant and John Denenea recently subpoenaed Benson’s charitable foundation for any records relating to “settlements of claims for clergy abuse” over the past decade.
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Source: Religion News Service