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New Orleans archdiocese announces changes to how it responds to priest abuse claims

Archbishop says changes are borne from dialogue with local SNAP leader.

NEW ORLEANS — Weeks after pledging to collaborate with a clerical abuse survivors’ group, the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Thursday announced several changes to the way it plans to respond to people who claim they were molested by priests and deacons.

Most significantly, Archbishop Gregory Aymond has agreed to appoint an abuse survivor to his Independent Review Board, which reviews molestation claims and advises whether a clergyman should be added to a public list of clerics who are suspected of sexually abusing minors.

He also replaced the archdiocese’s victims assistance coordinator, who has been roundly criticized by survivors as ineffectual.

The announcement comes a little more than two weeks before a March 1 legal deadline for new victims of sexual abuse to come forward with claims for compensation against the local church, which filed for bankruptcy last year.

The archdiocese has not disclosed exactly who sits on the Independent Review Board, which is primarily made up of lay professionals. But the archdiocese’s statement said Aymond will invite a survivor to join the board for the first time on the recommendation of victims’ advocates, including Kevin Bourgeois, the head of the local chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Previously one of the archbishop’s harshest critics, Bourgeois started a dialogue with Aymond in December aimed at improving the local Catholic Church’s treatment of people who disclose clerical abuse, especially those coming forward after years of silence.

Bourgeois, who settled with the church on claims that he was sexually abused by a New Orleans priest as a teen, had particularly harsh words for the archdiocese’s victims assistance coordinator, Marist Brother Stephen Synan, a pastoral counseling instructor at Notre Dame Seminary.

“I can't tell you how many guys that go to our SNAP group every month who have had negative experiences with this guy (Synan),” Bourgeois said in an interview with WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate in July 2020.

Bourgeois said replacing Synan was one of his first requests when he started discussing more cooperation with Aymond.

And on Thursday, the archdiocese said Aymond has appointed Joey Pistorius, the director of the archdiocese’s mental health counseling service, to take over the role beginning April 1.

The archdiocese also agreed to hire Bourgeois, a licensed clinical social worker, to provide paid training to Pistorius and a team of counselors trained to respond to disclosures of trauma.

“I have a contract to provide in-service training to Joey Pistorius and his team,” Bourgeois said. “I am not on the inside, I can’t stress that enough.”

The archdiocese's statement doesn't mention Synan, but it defended the quality of his work as victims assistance coordinator. 

"While some criticized him, many others were grateful for his sensitivity and his pastoral care," an archdiocesan spokesperson said. "This is a challenging position, and he has been instrumental in responding to victims and survivors of abuse."

Synan will continue in his teaching post at the seminary, the archdiocese said.

Some other abuse survivors criticized Bourgeois for working with the archdiocese, but Bourgeois said the national SNAP organization gave its blessing and he decided a more conciliatory approach would help victims more than harsh criticism. He said Thursday’s announcement shows the collaboration has worked so far.

“I look at this as a victory from our original conversation of getting rid of Stephen Synan,” Bourgeois said.

But the archdiocesan spokesperson contradicted that:

"The change in the role was made to expand the ability of the Victims Assistance Coordinator to respond to individual needs of victims by moving from a department of one person to a team of trained counselors."

Aymond said the steps announced Thursday represent the archdiocese’s continued efforts to earn back confidence from parishioners who have turned away from the church amid the decades-old, ongoing clerical molestation scandal. He also renewed calls made previously to meet with abuse survivors, as long as their claims have either been mediated or settled in court.

“We hope to provide a real path forward and an opportunity to rebuild trust in the church and rebuild relationships that may have been broken as a result of the pain of their abuse,” Aymond said.

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