NFL's Saints accused of helping shape clergy sex abuse list

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FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2019, file photo, New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson, watches the team warm up, before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans. The Saints contend their behind-the-scenes public relations work on the areas Roman Catholic sexual abuse crisis was minimal, but attorneys suing the church allege hundreds of confidential Saints emails show just the opposite, the team actively helping to shape a list of credibly accused clergy that appears to be an undercount. Benson, who is close friends with the local archbishop, have disputed as outrageous any suggestion that the team helped cover up crimes. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

NEW ORLEANS, La. – The New Orleans Saints say they only did “minimal” public relations work on the area’s Roman Catholic sexual abuse crisis, but attorneys suing the church allege hundreds of confidential Saints emails show the team's involvement went much further, helping to shape a list of credibly accused clergy that appears to be undercounted.

New court papers filed this week by lawyers for about two dozen men making sexual abuse claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans gave the most detailed description yet of the emails that have rocked the NFL team and remain shielded from the public.

“This goes beyond public relations,” the attorneys wrote, accusing the Saints of issuing misleading statements saying their work for the archdiocese involved only “messaging” and handling media inquiries as part of the 2018 release of the clergy names.

Instead, they wrote, “The Saints appear to have had a hand in determining which names should or should not have been included on the pedophile list.”

“In order to fulfill this role ... the Saints must have known the specific allegations of sexual abuse against a priest ... and made a judgment call about whether those allegations by a particular victim against a named priest were, in its opinion, legitimate enough to warrant being included," the attorneys wrote. They added, “It cannot now be disputed that the Saints had actual involvement in the creation of the pedophile list.”

That list, the Saints’ role in it and how accurate it was have become key questions in a controversy that has swirled around the team since news of the emails broke last week.

Victims’ advocates have long argued that the New Orleans Archdiocese's list of 57 credibly accused clergy, since expanded by six more names, minimizes the problem. An Associated Press analysis of the list suggests it underestimated the actual number of publicly accused clergy members in the region by at least 20.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in earlier court papers that Saints executives joined in the archdiocese’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes," and one email from late 2018 referred to Saints Senior Vice President of Communications Greg Bensel joining unnamed “third parties” in a discussion about “removing priests from the pedophile list." It was not clear which other Saints officials may have been involved.