8 priests on diocese list had assignments in Eunice
Ben Myers and Claire Taylor
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette on Friday released the names of clergymen who have been accused of sexually abusing children and “vulnerable adults,” becoming the last Louisiana diocese to disclose the identities of those deemed to have been credibly accused.
The Acadiana Advocate previously published a list of 16 priests who had have had serious, credible allegations made against them.
(Eight priests listed by the diocese had assignments in Eunice. See Page 10 for list.)
The disclosure by the Lafayette diocese is particularly relevant since this is where the the first widely-known case of priest sexual abuse of minors became public in the 1980s, rocking the devout Catholic communities of South Louisiana and foreshadowing a widespread priest sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
Long before the priest abuse scandals in Boston and Philadelphia, the Catholic Church in South Louisiana became “ground zero” when the family of one abused boy refused to quietly accept a settlement payment from the diocese as others did. The boy testified in court, detailing the sexual abuse he suffered by Gauthe. His family was awarded $1 million, and the church for the first time could not hide its dirty secret with a payout.
Gauthe, who told a psychologist he abused more than 300 children, would eventually admit to 34 criminal counts of molesting children in the 1970s and 1980s across Acadiana. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but only served 10.
The diocese’s insurers paid out millions in settlements to more than 40 of Gauthe’s victims and the victims of other priests. But the monetary details of those settlements almost always are kept secret from the more than 270,000 Catholics in the diocese that stretches from Vermilion Parish to the Atchafalaya River in St. Mary Parish.
The Gauthe case was an awakening for many Catholics who revered their priests and revealed for the first time a pattern repeated across the country where priests accused of abusing minors were transferred by their bishops to another church in the diocese or even to another state, where they often repeated the abuse on children whose parents were unaware of their pasts.
Dioceses in Louisiana and across the nation have been been under growing pressure to release the names of clergy credibly accused of abusing minors. That pressure resulted from a sweeping Pennsylvania Attorney General report last year on accused priests in that state, as well as local scandals.
Dioceses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Houma-Thibodaux and Alexandria have all released their own lists, while Shreveport Diocesan leaders said they received no allegations since the diocese was created in 1986 from part of the Diocese of Alexandria. The Lake Charles Diocese released information on 12 accused clergymen Thursday, several of whom also served in the Diocese of Lafayette.
The Lafayette Diocese has resisted calls to release a list since at least 2004, when court filings revealed the diocese had paid $24.4 million in legal settlements to 123 accusers. The accusers implicated 15 church employees, but the bishop at the time, Michael Jarrell, refused to disclose the identities of the accused, and the diocese has not wavered from that stance until now.
Bishop Douglas Deshotel, who replaced Jarrell in 2016, was noncommittal during a June news conference when asked repeatedly if he would release the list of priests associated with the legal settlements.
“I don’t know that information,” Deshotel said. “I do know that no priest who has been credibly accused is practicing as a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette or moved to practice anywhere else.”
Deshotel changed course four months later, after New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced that his diocese was committed to releasing a list of credibly accused offenders. Deshotel followed with a statement saying that disclosure “is a good idea to foster healing and provide assurance that no one accused of abuse is currently serving in the ministry.”
Not everyone agrees a list of names will, by itself, provide full accountability, however.
Ray Mouton, a lawyer who initially defended Gauthe at the request of the diocese before working as a victim advocate, said the public is entitled to know the number of complaints against each priest, the nature of the complaints and what actions the diocese took in response to the allegations.
“A list of names is meaningless,” Mouton, who now lives in France, said in an email. “Only by a release of all documentation relating to clergy sex abuse will there ever be full transparency and will the truth be known.”
Deshotel said in a pastoral letter released Wednesday that he has been asked about releasing a list since his tenure as bishop began in August 2016, and that he decided to do so after consulting with the laity, clergy and the community at large.
“My promise from the outset was that if previously unknown or unclear allegations were now identified as credible, I would not fail to remove the offending cleric from ministry,” Deshotel wrote.
Disclosing the identities of abusers helps victims feel validated, said Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. But Lennon said the release should have happened long ago.
“The church now in Lafayette is not releasing names because of a moral compass that it is the right thing to do,” Lennon said. “They were compelled by the Pennsylvania grand jury report that shows that sexual abuse happens in every diocese.”
Deshotel has placed at least three clergymen on leave over the past year, during which several new and old cases have surfaced and resurfaced.
The first in the recent string of allegations was against the Rev. Michael Guidry of St. Peter Church in Morrow, who was accused of molesting a 16-year-old altar boy in 2015. Guidry has since pleaded guilty. Deshotel announced the allegation in a June press conference, when he was pressed on his stance on releasing a list.
While Deshotel at that time would not commit to releasing the list, he did encourage other victims to come forward. Allegations against two other clergymen, Rev. Jody Simoneaux and Monsignor Robie Robichaux, surfaced in the weeks following the June press conference. Simoneaux and Robichaux were both placed on leave, but not until the diocese’s Sexual Abuse Review Board determined the allegations to be credible.
Robichaux was placed on leave in October, three weeks after Deshotel said he learned of the allegation. Simoneaux was disciplined in November, a little more than two months after an accuser came forward.
Robichaux’s accuser, who was a teenage girl when the abuse occurred around 1980, tried on multiple occasions to get the diocese to discipline Robichaux, starting with her initial allegation in 1994. She then submitted a notarized statement in 2004 requesting Robichaux’s removal, based on church-wide policies adopted in 2002.
Robichaux avoided discipline because former Bishop Michael Jarrell determined the victim was an adult under church law at the time of abuse, but Deshotel specified in a news conference that she was a minor under state law. He also said Jarrell should have referred the allegation to the Sexual Abuse Review Board.
Deshotel did not take questions at that June 2018 news conference. Left unanswered was the reason Jarrell did not, or whether the former bishop took any further action at all. A second woman accused of Robichaux of abusing her while she was a teenager one week after Deshotel announced the first allegations.
The diocese’s standard of credibility is not technical in nature, hinging on whether “an average person (would) consider the allegation believable,” according to Deshotel’s pastoral letter released Wednesday The bishop makes that determination in consultation with the review board, which comprises a racially diverse set of professionals in the fields of law enforcement, psychology and education, according to the diocese.
To prepare the list, Deshotel said he asked a panel of lay leaders to identify any credible accusations made since the diocese was formed in 1918. The Diocesan Review Board, he said, spent more than 700 hours reviewing 300,000 pages of material, including diocese files on 802 clerics, 623 priests and 179 deacons.
“No document was off limits, including restricted files,” Deshotel said.
While, as Deshotel said, the “average person” standard is a lower threshold than what law enforcement uses, Lennon, the SNAP president, said internal diocese investigations are not adequate. Law enforcement tools such as subpoena power and testimony under oath would help ensure the integrity of any inquiry into clergy abuse, Lennon said.
“It should not be up to church officials to investigate, or to decide themselves,” Lennon said.