For years, leaders at the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans – the second-oldest organization of its kind in the US – maintained that none of its recently serving clerics had been credibly found to have abused children. This was after the global church approved safety measures meant to root out predator priests and deacons about two decades ago.
That belief was eventually shattered when the city’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, received a complaint in February of 2020 that Patrick Wattigny was sending inappropriate text messages to at least one child at the local Catholic high school where he was chaplain.
Aymond told Wattigny to stop the texting, but he did not, and his superiors eventually sent him to a behavioral clinic for evaluation, according to documents which were provided to authorities and reviewed by the Guardian. At the clinic, Wattigny confessed to groping, fondling, and kissing children as well as sexually fantasizing about the students around him.
The ensuing couple of years would see Wattigny be removed from his clerical duties, criminally charged with molesting two children, and face grooming allegations for which he may never face substantial consequences. Things escalated on Wednesday, when Wattigny pleaded guilty to the charges filed against him before receiving a five-year prison sentence as well as required sex offender registration.
Wattigny’s punishment came in below the 10 years – if not more – to which the victims who brought criminal charges against him had clamored, including one who spoke out in May.
Nonetheless, the sentence handed Wednesday to Wattigny in a state courthouse in a New Orleans-area suburb left him as one of the few clerics appearing on a list of more than 70 priests and deacons whom his archdiocese strongly suspects of child molestation to stand criminal prosecution.
Ordained in 1994 by the archdiocese of New Orleans, the 55-year-old Wattigny worked at several archdiocesan institutions in a region with about a half-million Catholics, including at least two high schools where he was generally well-liked by students.
At the beginning of 2020, it became clear there was more to Wattigny than those communities realized, even as the worldwide Catholic Church’s long ongoing clerical molestation scandal put the general public on alert for abusive priests. The mother of a student at the high school where Wattigny was chaplain at the time, Pope John Paul II, reported that he was sending inappropriate texts to her son.
Officials at the school in Slidell, a city with about 29,000 inhabitants to the north-east of New Orleans, weren’t the only ones to learn of Wattigny’s behavior. So did Aymond, who told Wattigny to stop the texts, documents given to law enforcement and reviewed by the Guardian said.
Wattigny defied Aymond’s instruction and resumed contact with that student, resulting in the priest being sent to a behavioral clinic for evaluation.
At that evaluation, Wattigny admitted that he groped, fondled and kissed children – and that he harbored sexual fantasies for students around him. He also described having addictions to pornography and masturbation despite his employer’s stance that engaging in either activity is immoral.
The clinic concluded that Wattigny should not be working as a priest. He resigned from his chaplain’s role, and the archdiocese ordered him removed from working in public ministry.
Around that same time, a former student at Pope John Paul had come forward and reported that Wattigny molested him in 2013. Wattigny was arrested at the end of October 2020 at a home in Georgia, charged later by prosecutors, and made bail in the amount of $150,000 to await the resolution of the case from out of jail.
Accusations that Wattigny had molested yet another child surfaced last year. That victim spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday, describing how he was going to a church with his family in Covington – near Slidell – in about 1996 when Wattigny befriended him. Wattigny did so by giving him cards of baseball players that the boy admired and would provide him advice on what prayers to say to get to heaven.
Then came the day, the victim said, when Wattigny told him that he was in trouble and needed to follow “Father Pat” to the rectory. There, the victim said, Wattigny masturbated while he fondled the boy’s genitals and used his fingers to rape him.
The victim called it “the most terrifying day of my life”. He reported Wattigny to authorities many years later when he saw the news that the priest had been accused of molesting someone else.
“How many others had their lives shattered by this man?” the victim recalled asking himself as he decided to come forward to investigators.
Again, Wattigny was arrested, made bail in the amount of $75,000 and was charged by prosecutors in connection with that case in late May.
Wattigny on Wednesday pleaded guilty as charged to one count of molestation of a juvenile under his supervision in the case dating back to 2013. For the second victim, he entered what is known as an Alford plea, in which defendants technically stop short of admitting wrongdoing but declare themselves guilty because they acknowledge compelling evidence would probably lead to their conviction.
Each count carried between five and 20 years in prison, meaning he received the minimum after Louisiana state judge John Keller ordered Wattigny to serve both punishments simultaneously. He’s also required to register as a sex offender and spend some time on probation after his release.
Less than two years before his first arrest, New Orleans’s archbishop had proclaimed in a letter to the region’s Catholic congregants: “There has not been a substantial allegation of sexual abuse of a minor in well over a decade by a member of the clergy in ministry in the archdiocese of New Orleans.”
The two victims pressing the case resolved Wednesday are not the only ones who have come forward to accuse Wattigny of abusive physical contact.
According to criminal justice sources, at least one claim against Wattigny not addressed this week was filed in federal court after the archdiocese of New Orleans sought bankruptcy protection in May 2020 following numerous lawsuits seeking damages for clerical molestation.
That claimant described being visited by Wattigny on the night he was shot by his father, who also beat his mother before dying by suicide. During that visit, as well as in subsequent encounters, Wattigny promised to pay the claimant’s school tuition, gave him unsolicited shoulder massages and touched him on the thigh without permission. The accuser ultimately interpreted this behavior to be grooming along the lines of the inappropriate texts which first put the priest under scrutiny, even if it did not apparently escalate to physical abuse, the sources said.
There was no indication that Wattigny had any criminal exposure over that claim. And it’s not exactly clear how many other claims may exist against Wattigny because of broad secrecy rules governing the church’s bankruptcy case.
The victim from Wattigny’s first arrest called his abuser’s punishment a “grossly lenient and unfair slap on the wrist” in a written statement provided to reporters Wednesday. With the help of his attorney, Richard Trahant, the victim prepared the statement in lieu of appearing in court because he said he had no confidence that his words would make a difference to either Wattigny or the judge who decided his fate.
“This sentence,” the statement said, “makes me feel really worthless and hopeless as a victim.”
As loved ones and his attorney Bill Arata looked on, the other victim expressed doubts that Wattigny would be reformed after completing his sentence. The victim said he is now a successful mental health professional who is married to the mother of his three sons, whose ball teams he coaches.
But, he said, “this success has not come easily”. He’s required years of therapy to overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other emotional turmoil that Wattigny inflicted on him. For that, he hoped that Wattigny would be given a heftier sentence.
Afterwards, the victim said: “Today is just one more way for this priest to manipulate and hurt me.”
In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International