Saturday, September 30, 2023

Deacon’s estate settles with abuse victim

We can win': New Orleans clergy abuse survivor secures settlement | New  Orleans | The Guardian

The estate of a wealthy Catholic deacon who admitted molesting a child and then died earlier this year has now paid his victim after he had previously tried to back out of a $1m agreement to settle a contentious lawsuit between them.

It is believed to be one of the largest individual sexual abuse settlements ever paid in a case involving a cleric who served in the archdiocese of New Orleans during the organization’s decades-old sexual molestation crisis, though the crime to which the deacon pleaded guilty occurred before his ordination.

The settlement closes the books on a dramatic case that not only produced a criminal conviction of a clergyman but also produced allegations of an attempted hush-money-facilitated cover-up.

Virgil Maxey “VM” Wheeler III, the former deacon of Metairie, Louisiana, was accused of rape after allegedly taking showers with and performing oral sex on a 12-year-old boy between about 2001 and 2002. 

He was arrested in March 2021, pleaded guilty in December last year to the lesser charge of indecent behavior with a juvenile, and was sentenced to probation as well as sex-offender registration.

In July 2021, shortly after Wheeler’s arrest, the victim filed a civil lawsuit under a pseudonym alleging that Wheeler had raped him. After Wheeler pleaded guilty in December, he verbally agreed to pay the victim more than $1m.

But Wheeler – who was ordained in 2018 – reneged on the deal after he learned he would have to register as a sex offender.

Meanwhile, after Wheeler’s death earlier this year, his estate moved to leave large sums of money he had earned as a high-priced corporate attorney to New Orleans’s Catholic Community Foundation, Ochsner Health System, Tulane University Law School and SMU Law School.

Ochsner and Tulane said they would renounce the gifts after the Guardian uncovered Wheeler’s intentions and asked the institutions about them, in effect keeping the funds in the estate as the victim sought to salvage the settlement.

SMU said it was not aware of the will. The Catholic Community Foundation did not immediately comment.

In an interview, the victim’s attorney, Richard Trahant, confirmed his client had secured a settlement.

He said he could not discuss the settlement’s precise terms because his side agreed to keep the amount paid by Wheeler’s estate confidential. When asked whether the settlement agreement accepted by his client was less than the one Wheeler had sought to rescind from him last year, Trahant would only say: “This dispute has been amicably resolved.”

Recently, the victim agreed to let WWL-TV and the Guardian publicly report his identity. He is Mac McCall, 34, the son of prominent politician John Young, the former president of Jefferson parish.

His mother, Mary Lou McCall, is also known in the New Orleans area for having hosted a Catholic public access television show. Wheeler was once a friend of the family.

McCall said Tuesday that he believed the outcome of his case showed abuse survivors “can have a voice and win” in such a situation.

“We can speak up, and we can have some kind of healing,” he said.

‘It bothered me’

At one point, the lawsuit settled by McCall alleged that prominent local Catholics identified as Mr R and Mr K had offered him $400,000 to stop helping the Jefferson parish sheriff’s office investigate Wheeler before he was charged.

That phone call was captured on an audio recording obtained by Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse president Richard Windmann through a public records request issued to the Jefferson parish sheriff’s office.

And that call showed that Louie Roussel III – a New Orleans businessman and thoroughbred racehorse owner – had called Trahant in February 2021.

“It seems like Mr Wheeler was offering money to have McCall stop cooperating with the police,” Trahant said on the recording to Roussel, who is identified as Mr R in the lawsuit. “And that bothered me. And I think it bothered you.”

Roussel responded: “It bothered me tremendously. I didn’t sleep last night. You know, I don’t want to be involved with it.”

Roussel told WWL-TV in an interview that he made the offer on behalf of Wheeler’s friend, businessman Daniel Kingston, who is Mr K in the lawsuit. 

Roussel confirmed the offer was $400,000 – with $50,000 of that specifically to settle a civil lawsuit before it was filed.

Roussel denied that the payment was offered to stop McCall from helping the police or to keep him quiet, which would be illegal. He said he called Trahant within a day to back out of the deal.

“I lost sleep over this, because I don’t want to be involved in anything that’s unethical, much less going any further than this,” Roussel told the station.

When WWL-TV pointed out to Roussel that he had not objected at the time Trahant characterized the payment as an offer in exchange for halting McCall’s cooperation with the police, Roussel replied: “That was his take on it.”

Wheeler died in April of pancreatic cancer, and a priest named Andrew Taormina subsequently became executor of his estate. Taormina withdrew after the Guardian reported that Wheeler had backed out of an agreed-upon settlement with McCall and had plotted to give away the money to various entities after his death instead.

Kingston was then named the new executor.

Court records show Kingston had signed an agreement with Wheeler in 2019 to buy Wheeler’s $975,000 mansion within six months of Wheeler’s death. Shortly after he became executor, Kingston tried to lower that price to $825,000, but Trahant filed an objection in court.

Trahant said he would withdraw that objection now that his client has been paid.

Kingston declined to comment. And Trahant said he could not comment on the phone call with Roussel or other circumstances leading up to the settlement.

‘I have to do something’

Mary Lou McCall was working on documentaries with retired archbishop Philip Hannan in 2002 when, according to the lawsuit, she informed Hannan that Wheeler had tried to get Mac’s older brother into bed with him during a ski trip to Utah. 

Knowing that Wheeler wanted to become a deacon, she also met with the head of the archdiocese’s diaconate program at the time, Jim Swiler.

Hannan and Swiler are now dead, and the archdiocese said it has no record of Mary Lou McCall’s complaint in its files. Wheeler was later allowed to enter the diaconate program and was ordained by the city’s current archbishop, Gregory Aymond.

Shortly after Wheeler joined the clergy, McCall and his father – a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Louisiana – met with Aymond to report that Wheeler had fondled McCall as a boy. 

Two years later, after McCall saw Wheeler attending a speech his mother was giving, he and his father went back to meet with Aymond to report the showers and oral sex.

“Now I have to do something,” Aymond said, according to the lawsuit.

Within a few days, Aymond suspended Wheeler. The archbishop also publicly announced the church had received a formal allegation of abuse by Wheeler predating his ordination.

Church law requires the archdiocese to record and keep complaints like the one Mary Lou McCall brought to Hannan and Swiler in 2002. 

Records produced in a pending bankruptcy protection case filed by the archdiocese show church officials received multiple reports of sexual abuse or misconduct by clergymen, failed to record them and let the accused return to ministry.

One of those clergymen, retired priest Lawrence Hecker, admitted to WWL-TV and the Guardian in an interview last month that he met with Hannan in 1988 about a family’s claim that Hecker had sex with their underage son. 

Hecker said he convinced Hannan to let him stay on as a priest and work at or near Catholic schools.

“Archbishop Hannan trusted that what I said was true, that I would not be in any such circumstances” again, Hecker said. Hecker, 92, was recently jailed and is awaiting trial on rape and kidnapping charges in a separate case.

In the decade before it filed for federal bankruptcy protection in 2020, New Orleans’s archdiocese – the second-oldest in the US – paid more than 130 abuse-related settlements totaling $11.6m, according to records first obtained by the Guardian. 

The largest of those individual agreements was $1.5m.

The archdiocese’s bankruptcy remained unresolved Tuesday. 

And to avoid having the bankruptcy delay the settlement of his abuse claim, McCall sued Wheeler directly without naming the archdiocese as a defendant.