Leader of New Orleans clergy abuse victims group ousted over work for archdiocese

Richard Windmann said members trusted Bourgeois with information about their interactions with their lawyers. “He knows all of our business,” Windmann said.

NEW ORLEANS — The local leader of a national group of survivors of molestation by Catholic clergy parted ways with the organization Friday, a day after the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced it would pay him to train and consult with a new counseling team the church is forming.

Kevin Bourgeois, who had been leading the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests’ New Orleans chapter, said he had accepted a contract from the archdiocese to provide in-service training to a team of victims assistance counselors so that he could have a direct hand in improving the local church’s treatment of abuse claimants. 

Bourgeois said he had cleared the arrangement with national SNAP leadership. But SNAP President Zach Hiner issued a statement Friday saying the paid arrangement with the archdiocese created a conflict of interest, and that Bourgeois had resigned from his volunteer post with the survivors group.

“As an independent self-help and advocacy group for survivors of religious and institutional abuse, it is important that there be clear separations between SNAP leaders and church officials,” Hiner’s statement said. “The conflict of interest in this case is enough to warrant a change in New Orleans and as such Kevin Bourgeois will no longer be acting as a volunteer SNAP leader. 

“We are grateful for the work that Kevin has done in advocating for and supporting survivors in New Orleans and hope that his work will continue in Louisiana,” he added.

Bourgeois on Friday said he did not resign but was forced out by SNAP’s board of directors. He said “a vocal minority” of New Orleans-based SNAP members had undermined his standing.

He had already come under fire from other members of the local SNAP chapter after announcing in January that he had reached a detente with Archbishop Gregory Aymond. 

A licensed social worker who said he was abused by a priest as a teen in the 1980s, Bourgeois leveled 18 months of withering criticism at Aymond and the archdiocese, especially its decision to file for bankruptcy last May. But in December, Bourgeois said, another survivor invited him to a meeting with Aymond to be there as moral support for the survivor. As a result, Bourgeois said, he and Aymond ended up discussing ways they could collaborate to help victims of the clergy abuse scandal.

Bourgeois said SNAP’s top leaders agreed with him that a more conciliatory approach might help victims better than simply subjecting Aymond and the archdiocese to harsh criticism. 

But there were members and supporters of SNAP who said they were uncomfortable that one of their own would so closely tie himself to an archdiocese that had employed their abusers and then waited years to publicly identify them as predators. 

Their criticism reached a fever pitch on Thursday, when the archdiocese announced it would pay Bourgeois to train a new clergy abuse complaint intake team and consult it as needed. 

SNAP members sent emails to the group’s national brass arguing that it was a glaring conflict of interest for an organization leader such as Bourgeois to receive money from the archdiocese. 

Richard Windmann, a New Orleans native who says he now belongs to SNAP’s Dallas chapter, said members trusted Bourgeois with information about their interactions with their lawyers.

“He knows all of our business,” Windmann said.

Windmann said he and others demanded Bourgeois resign from SNAP or turn down the contract. SNAP’s leadership released the announcement about Bourgeois’ resignation late Friday morning.

Bourgeois on Friday said he had never revealed any confidential information that was shared with him by anyone. He rebuked the idea that anyone could suggest he was capable of betraying fellow survivors’ confidences.

“I take my code of ethics as a social worker seriously,” Bourgeois said. “People who know me and respect me reached out to me and offered their support. They also expressed their disbelief that I would be accused of doing anything untoward.”

Bourgeois also said his departure from SNAP was not a unanimous decision. 

Others in the survivor community were outraged by Bourgeois’ ouster. Mike Brandner Sr., who believes his brother was sexually abused by a priest before committing suicide, said Bourgeois’ help was instrumental in getting his brother’s alleged abuser, Brian Highfill, added to Aymond’s list of pedophile priests.

“Without question, there is no doubt where his heart lies and the victims are No. 1,” Brandner said. “Anything Kevin is doing is to benefit past, present and future victims.”

Brandner also said he worries that work Bourgeois is continuing to do for victims will be compromised by his departure from SNAP.

Bourgeois had led SNAP’s New Orleans chapter since going public about being abused as a teen by the late priest Carl Davidson. Bourgeois said he was prompted to come forward by Davidson’s inclusion on a list of more than 70 priests and deacons who are credibly accused of being child sexual predators. Aymond first released that roster in November 2018. 

Besides criticizing that list as being woefully late and incomplete, Bourgeois helped numerous other clergy abuse complainants come forward, either by speaking to the media or to civil attorneys who could help them explore their legal options.

“It’s a tough situation,” Hiner said. “Kevin’s done great work for the survivor movement in New Orleans.”

On Thursday, Aymond announced that he was replacing the archdiocese’s liaison to clergy abuse claimants, who had been roundly criticized by survivors as ineffectual. 

The archbishop appointed Joey Pistorius, the director of the archdiocese’s mental health counseling service, to take over the position of victims assistance coordinator beginning April 1.

Pistorius will replace Marist Brother Stephen Synan.

Bourgeois took credit for convincing the church to replace Synan, but the archdiocese said Synan had done good work during a difficult time, when the clergy abuse list was released and the volume of new complaints soared.

Pistorius will work with a team of counselors who respond to disclosures of trauma, and the archdiocese extended Bourgeois a contract to provide in-service training and additional help on an as-needed basis.

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