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Spotlight Report

  Escorted by two sheriff's deputies, convicted pedophile and former priest Gilbert Gauthe walks out of the Lafayette parish jail in downtown Lafayette upon his release in February 2002. (Times Picayune / G. Andrew Boyd)

Lessons unlearned

Church struggle pains La. Region stung by abuse in '80s

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/12/2002

ABBEVILLE, La. - Catholicism runs deep here in the land of swamps and bayous.

This Cajun city was founded by a Catholic priest in 1843; it was originally called La Chapelle, meaning the chapel, and then renamed Abbeville, meaning priest-town. The main square is called Magdalen; the official flag features a cross and the slogan ''Pour Dieu et la Patrie,'' meaning ''For God and Country.''

Nearly two decades ago, the Acadiana region of southwest Louisiana was riven by a previously unimaginable scandal: a popular priest, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, had molested scores, perhaps hundreds, of children. Church officials had known about the abuse for years, but had responded to complaining parents by moving Gauthe from parish to parish.

Today, as the nation's Catholic bishops gather in Dallas, saying this time they really mean to fix the problem of clergy sexual abuse, the people of Acadiana are stunned that their Catholic Church seems to have learned so little, so long after they brought the problem of abuse public, so long after they suffered so much pain.

''With all we went through 19 years ago, there's been no change - the same thing is going on, and they haven't learned anything from what happened here,'' said Wayne Sagrera, a lifelong Catholic who stopped going to church soon after he realized his diocese had knowingly given a child molester access to his sons, three of whom were abused as altar boys by Gauthe. ''And never once has one of these [church officials] come forward and asked how our children are, or how we are. Not one ... ever had the courtesy to ask.''

The revelations here - the first big public scandal of clergy sexual abuse in the world - took a huge toll.

Neighbors stopped speaking to neighbors. Faithful Catholics stopped going to church. Craig Sagrera, Wayne Sagrera's son and the first to find the courage to tell his parents what Gauthe did during sleepovers at the rectory, wound up in a psychiatric hospital for a time. F. Ray Mouton Jr., the lawyer who defended Gauthe, became an alcoholic, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, got a divorce, and stopped practicing law.

''Hell couldn't have been worse than what we went through,'' said Glenn Gastal, the parent of another Gauthe victim. Gastal said local anger at his willingness to challenge the church killed his feed and fertilizer business and drove him to alcoholism. ''Now I look back, and think, `What have I done? Nothing.' Every time I turn my TV on, it's all that I see. So what good did I do? I tortured myself for no reason.''

Over time, the scandal faded into memory. Craig Sagrera grew up healthy and joined his dad's successful alligator processing business. Mouton started a new life as a writer and world traveler. Jason Berry, the local journalist who brought the story to national attention, began work on a history of jazz funerals.

And then in January, from 1,400 miles away in Boston, came the story of the Rev. John J. Geoghan.

The characters were of Irish descent, not French. The setting was New England, not Acadiana. But the plot was the same - an abusive priest, charming his way into the lives of Catholic families, abusing their children, being protected by their church.

Twenty years ago, few could have imagined the magnitude of the problem - in fact, at first many here in Vermilion Parish, just south of nearby Lafayette, thought Gauthe was an anomaly. Today, lawyers estimate that as many as 1,500 Catholic priests molested children in the United States over the last five decades - a small fraction of the number of priests who have served over that time, but still a large number in absolute terms. And numerous bishops stand accused of shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, despite knowing their predilections for sexual contact with the church's young.

''What Lafayette did was put the issue on the map, and it was a topography that began slowly to expand,'' said Berry, a New Orleans native and practicing Catholic who wrote about Gauthe for the Times of Acadiana, the National Catholic Reporter, and then in a book, ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.''

''But a lot of people thought it was an aberration in the bayous,'' he said. ''I never imagined that in 2002 the trail to Dallas would be a series of explosions. Never.''

The Diocese of Lafayette, where Abbeville is located, is even more Catholic than Boston; an estimated 65 percent of the population here is Catholic, compared with 52 percent in the Archdiocese of Boston. The area is culturally dominated by the Cajuns who trace their ancestry to French-Canadian immigrants. Vermilion Parish, the county in which Abbeville is located, is home to 54,000 people and 13 Catholic churches.

Gauthe was removed from ministry in 1983, and in 1985, as part of a plea bargain, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released after just 10 years, moved to Texas, and was arrested again on charges of fondling a 3-year-old boy. Re-released from prison in 2000, his current whereabouts are unknown. His final church, St. John's, is a small steepled building across the street from a school in the remote hamlet of Henry, about 130 miles west of New Orleans.

''The people here - their faith is strong, and the church is not empty - but to say they weren't affected would not be correct,'' said the current pastor, the Rev. Cedric Sonnier. ''The actual victims have moved away, or if they go to church, they go someplace else. I've asked people here if they want me to talk about this, and they tell me they've dealt with it, and don't want to get dragged through it again.''

But Sonnier said the scandal keeps popping back up.

''Just when you think it's all going to end, it comes back, and you wonder when are we going to be able to get back to what we're focused on,'' he said. ''I just hope the bishops this week will somehow restore the public's confidence in the church, and show that the church's primary cause is to care about God's people.''

For the Sagrera family, now living in a rural area called Mouton Cove just south of Abbeville, reconciliation is not even a goal.

Gauthe had been a constant presence in the Sagrera home - he would frequently come over for dinner, travel on vacations with the family, and invite the Sagrera children to the rectory for sleepovers. Craig, now 29, recalls Gauthe's home as a child-friendly place, filled with games, but also a threatening place, with guns openly displayed. The priest told children not to tell their parents about the sexual abuse, behavior Gauthe described as ''natural.''

''I went to a psychiatric hospital at age 11, suffering from deep depression, and that built up my courage, so that over the years it has begun not to matter what other people think,'' Craig said. ''As a Catholic kid, a priest was just like God. I couldn't function anymore.''

Craig's parents, 58-year-old Wayne and 59-year-old Rose, both trace their history in this area back more than a century, but they said they still suffer some of the ostracism they first felt when they challenged the church. They said some of their neighbors didn't believe Gauthe was a child molester even after the priest confessed in court; some parents, they said, never believed their own children's complaints.

''I hoped the church could be the church I thought it was, instead of the one I learned it is,'' Rose Sagrera said. ''I had believed everything in the Bible and the Baltimore Catechism - I went to Catholic school and I believed the church was supposed to be forgiving, loving, and caring. But I learned it can be very evil; that it has very little concern for individuals, and that it won't go after the lost sheep.''

Many of the people involved with the Gauthe scandal have repeatedly tried to put the issue of clergy sexual abuse behind them. The US bishops took steps a decade ago in an effort to address the scandal. But hundreds of abusive priests remained on the job, and now the scandal is back with a fury.

''You don't put it behind you - it just keeps surfacing,'' said Wayne Sagrera. ''The painful thing is to see the church still handling it the way it did 20 years ago.

Berry, the writer who brought Gauthe to public attention, reoriented his career to writing about music and politics. But since the Boston story broke, he's put aside his jazz book to meet the demand for his knowledge of clergy sexual abuse, and he's working on a new book, about the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the allegedly abusive founder of the religious order Legionaries of Christ.

Mouton, the lawyer who represented Gauthe, also tried to put the issue behind him. A fifth-generation Lafayette resident whose ancestor donated the land for the diocesan cathedral and whose father built the chancery, Mouton had always been a magnet for controversy, and he willingly took on the defense of the priest. But when the case was over, he hooked up with two priests he had met through the case - a canon lawyer, the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, and a psychiatrist, the Rev. Michael Peterson - and coauthored with them a report on abuse prevention, and spent two years traveling the country talking with bishops.

''I really thought I was doing an extremely important thing,'' he said, chain-smoking his way through a lengthy meal of gumbo, pompano with crabmeat, and a Virgin Mary in a private room at his favorite haunt, the New Orleans restaurant Antoine's. ''I really believed that the work I was doing was going to save thousands of children from being sexually abused by priests ... Now I believe it made no difference.''

If Mouton is bitter and skeptical about the bishops' readiness to change, victims' attorneys are even more upset.

''I have real difficulty with your telling me they want to come up with a zero-tolerance policy now, when they had an abundance of information 20 years ago,'' said lawyer Paul J. Hebert of Lafayette, who represented some of Gauthe's victims. ''I was told the Gauthe case went all the way to Rome, and I thought people were aware of this. It's disappointing, and it evidences the continued problem that the hierarchy who condoned this behavior is still in power.''

New Orleans lawyer Raul R. Bencomo, who also represented Gauthe victims, said his phone has been ringing off the hook since January with new victims of other priests. Bencomo, a Jesuit-educated lawyer who said he is still a practicing Catholic, said he and his clients are in pain.

''Twenty years ago I wrote a letter to the lawyers for the church and said, `This is just the tip of the iceberg,''' he said. ''Yet here we are, with the bishops of this country dragged kicking and screaming into this whole thing, finally forced to come to grips with the severity of the problem.''

Although some victims say it has been painful to be constantly reminded of their abuse, Bencomo said it is also helpful in a way.

''There is a tremendous sense of relief that all of this is coming out, because it validates what they have been saying and crying all along,'' he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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