THE scandal-ridden Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, led by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, above, was compelled to declare bankruptcy in May 2020 in the wake of claims made by victims of clerical abuse.
It’s now been revealed by the US Department of Justice that the diocese, apart from harbouring a host of abusive priests, made false claims regarding damage allegedly done to its properties by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. It has agreed to pay back a meagre $1-m of the $184-m it received from The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) between the times of the hurricanes and 2018.
In a press release issued yesterday (Monday), the DOJ said:
The settlement resolves allegations that, from 2007 through 2013, the Archdiocese of New Orleans knowingly signed certifications for FEMA funding that contained false or fraudulent damage descriptions and repair estimates that were prepared by AECOM, an architecture and engineering firm based in Los Angeles.
Among other things, the alleged false descriptions included purported damage to a nonexistent central air conditioning unit and misstated a facility’s square footage.
Said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M Boynton of the Justice Department’s Civil Division:
FEMA offers critical financial support when natural disasters strike. The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that these taxpayer funds are properly spent to help disaster victims rebuild their communities.
In May of this year, it was reported here that the archdiocese had confirmed that it had hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and liabilities. These assets include a $306 million endowment along with $77 million worth of land and buildings. Liabilities on the other hand are “a measly” $38 million in bonds, $500,000 in employee health claims, and the $8.5 million set aside for abuse-related claims.
In a letter to the Vatican, sent two days before the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, it was revealed that Archbishop Aymond said that the church was solvent and financially more than capable of handling the claims. He wrote:
The archdiocese is not insolvent. We have sufficient cash, cash equivalents, and investments to cover 100 percent of our liabilities.
The National Catholic Register reports today that the Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to comment after the settlement figure was released, but has in the past denied any wrongdoing.
Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans during August 2005, killed at least 1,800 people and devastated much of the city. In the years since Katrina and Rita, which hit the region the month after, the FEMA has paid out nearly $20 billion in relief.
The settlement, according to the NCR, is based on the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ financial condition. It required final approval of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, which approved the settlement on October 26.
Robert Ramero, a former AECOM Project Specialist-turned-whistleblower, alleged in a lawsuit that several entities in New Orleans, including Xavier University, the archdiocese, and Dillard University, defrauded FEMA after the hurricane.
The DOJ said that Xavier University previously agreed to pay the United States $12 million to resolve its alleged role in the submission of false and misleading repair estimates prepared on its behalf by AECOM. The lawsuit against AECOM and another disaster relief applicant remains ongoing.
AECOM, according to its website, is:
The world’s trusted infrastructure consulting firm, partnering with clients to solve the world’s most complex challenges and build legacies for generations to come.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans denied any sort of fraud in a statement issued in June 2020, after the AECOM employee’s lawsuit was unsealed.
Said representatives from the archdiocese:
Our finance office worked diligently and relied upon the knowledge and expertise of FEMA and their designated agencies and field representatives. Our staff was committed to working responsibly and being good stewards of the money received, and our documentation reflects that.
The archdiocese claimed in June 2020 that they were surprised by an investigation over the money it received:
Every dollar of FEMA funds received has gone back into the restoration of parish, school and other properties to serve the people of the Greater New Orleans community.
We deny the allegation that the Archdiocese of New Orleans knowingly conspired to submit false information. We have cooperated with the federal government’s investigation and will continue to work with them as we resolve this claim.
In providing details of the diocese’s sex abuse scandal, Wikipedia happens to mention that, in early 2009, the state of Maine passed a law allowing same-sex civil marriage. This so outraged the Archdiocese of New Orlean that it contributed $2,000 to a referendum to overturn that law.
According to Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics & Election Practices, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland Maine spent over $553,000 to reject the law passed by the state legislature and signed by the Governor in May 2009. As a result of aggressive Catholic intervention, 53 percent of Maine voters rejected the law.