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You are here News Human Rights ‘The devil was in that building’: New Orleans church orphanages’ dark secrets

‘The devil was in that building’: New Orleans church orphanages’ dark secrets

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Hope-Haven Madonna Manor

Call her Sheila.

She doesn’t want her name used because of court testimony she has given as a state social worker which helped put men who abused their families in jail. She’s retired now, but still a rescuer by nature.

On a recent afternoon she went back to Madonna Manor, the Catholic orphanage in a Spanish colonial revival building, now shuttered, several miles across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. “A reverent place,” she sighed, “but it’s also a crime scene.”

She gazed at the wooden plank covering a window. Raccoons now nested in rooms that were once the dormitory for boys under age 12 at Madonna Manor. Feral cats roamed the empty playgrounds where homeless men sometimes camped.

“I tried. I did everything I could to get that man put away,” she said, referring to Harold Ehlinger, who lived in a dormitory room when her day job was counseling boys at Madonna Manor decades ago.

On the opposite side of Barataria Boulevard, another Spanish mission structure housed the older, adolescent boys: Hope Haven, a name dripping with irony like candle wax given the hell described in victims’ lawsuits against the New Orleans archdiocese.

The buildings warped by neglect stand on vast green acreage – potentially sizable assets in the bankruptcy protection this archdiocese sought in 2020, facing abuse victim lawsuits. The church case now exceeds 500 abuse claims, whose potential value depends on the survival of a recent Louisiana “look-back” law which eliminated filing deadlines for victims.

The outlines of a subterranean criminal religious culture are emerging with roughly 100 abuse claims that center on the two orphanages.

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