The New Orleans Saints' chief spokesman helped the local Roman Catholic archdiocese with damage control after it was accused of covering-up for priests who preyed on children, the football team said on Friday.
Greg Bensel was one of several “community and civic minded leaders” the Archdiocese of New Orleans reached out to for help after the release in November 2018 of the names of clergymen and other church workers credibly accused of sexual abuse, the NFL team said in a statement.
Bensel “offered input on how to work with the media,” the team said. “The advice was simple and never wavering. Be direct, open and fully transparent, while making sure that all law enforcement agencies were alerted.”
The Saints confirmed Bensel’s involvement after an Associated Press story said team had “gone to court to keep the public from seeing hundreds of emails that allegedly show team executives doing public relations damage control” for the archdiocese.
“Obviously, the Saints should not be in the business of assisting the Archdiocese, and the Saints’ public relations team is not in the business of managing the public relations of criminals engaged in pedophilia,” attorneys for a group of clergy abuse victims suing the archdiocese wrote in a court filing. The attorneys alleged that “the Saints realize that if the documents at issue are made public, this professional sports organization also will be smearing itself.”
NBC News reached out to attorneys associated with the case to obtain the filings from the Civil District Court of Orleans Parish but have not yet received a reply.
The AP story also noted that New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and team owner Gayle Benson enjoy a “close friendship.” Aymond is a regular guest of Benson’s at Saints games and the team owner has donated millions of dollars to Roman Catholic institutions in and around New Orleans, according to the Associated Press.
The Saints, in the team statement, insisted it has “no interest in concealing information from the press or public.”
“The New Orleans Saints, Greg Bensel, and Mrs. Gayle Benson were and remain offended, disappointed and repulsed by the actions of certain past clergy,” the statement says. “We remain steadfast in support of the victims who have suffered and pray for their continued healing.”
NBC News asked the Saints if Bensel helped draft the team statement. The team did not respond.
The NFL has also not commented on Bensel’s work with the Archdiocese.
But Kevin Bourgeois of the local Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) chapter called the team’s involvement “an egregious personal foul.”
The Saints “have chosen to protect an institution instead of protecting children,” Bourgeois said in a statement. “This is an embarrassing move from a team that has no business being involved in this situation in the first place. It is disappointing to me that my hometown team would rather protect secrets instead of protecting children. Shame. Shame. Shame.”
In their statement, the Saints emphatically deny the allegations.
Among the emails contained in the court papers cited by the AP is an October 2018 exchange in which Bensel asked archdiocesan spokeswoman Sarah McDonald whether there might be “a benefit to saying we support a victims right to pursue a remedy through the courts.”
“I don’t think we want to say we ‘support’ victims going to the courts,” McDonald reportedly replied, according to the AP. “But we certainly encourage them to come forward.”
In response to an email from NBC News, McDonald wrote back: "Keeping with our policy of not commenting on pending matters of litigation, we have no comment."