METAIRIE, La. -- The lawsuits calling for the public release of emails between the New Orleans Saints and the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese have mostly been put on hold since the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy last month, but new details in a Sports Illustrated report on the case confirm that a team official began offering public relations counsel to the church regarding its sexual abuse crisis months earlier than initially reported.
The Saints and owner Gayle Benson have long had a close relationship with the Catholic Church and Archbishop Gregory Aymond, and they have maintained that they did nothing wrong by offering PR input to the archdiocese on how to work with the media, suggesting the church offer full transparency while releasing the names of clergy members who have been credibly accused of abuse.
Attorneys for plaintiffs suing the church, however, have accused Saints officials of aiding the archdiocese in its "pattern and practice of concealing its crimes" by helping to shape the church's response.
Although most of the reporting has centered on the assistance the Saints offered the church when it publicly released the names of clergy members in November 2018, an attorney representing the Saints told Sports Illustrated that senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel offered advice to Aymond earlier that summer when the church fell under heavy media scrutiny.
"Mr. Bensel did receive a call from the Archbishop during the summer asking Mr. Bensel for his opinion on the best way to handle the press and the negative series of media articles that were being written," attorney James Gulotta told Sports Illustrated via email. "Mr. Bensel suggested that the Archbishop call for and meet with the local newspaper's editorial board."
Attorneys representing both the plaintiffs and The Associated Press went to court in February to have email communication between the team and the church made public, with attorneys for the Saints and the archdiocese arguing that the emails should be released only if they are submitted as evidence in trial.
A judge has not ruled on the matter, though a special master who was assigned to hear the arguments recommended that the emails remain private during the discovery process.
Sports Illustrated also noted that a subpoena was issued earlier this month to New Orleans' Jesuit High School requesting all communications with any Saints personnel. The Saints and several of their executives have close ties to Jesuit, which has also been embroiled in clergy abuse lawsuits.
Benson, her late husband and former Saints owner Tom Benson, and Saints executives have never made any secret about their close relationship with the Catholic Church, donating more than $60 million over the past dozen years, according to an AP report.
Benson said she is "proud" of that relationship, though she insisted that neither she, her husband nor any of their organizations "have ever contributed nor will ever make payments to the Catholic Church to pay settlements or legal awards of any kind, let alone this issue. To suggest that I would offer money to the Catholic Church to pay for anything related to the clergy molestation issue sickens me."
The NFL has continued monitor developments in the case but has not opened its own investigation into the Saints while continuing to "respect the judicial process," according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy.
"Our sympathies are with the victims," McCarthy said. "Our understanding is that the Saints have cooperated fully in the discovery process and produced all the communications to the lawyers for the plaintiffs and that those documents are currently subject to a protective order."