Lawyer says New Orleans priest groomed teens by text, archdiocese doubles down on defense

Lawyer says New Orleans priest groomed teens by text, archdiocese doubles down on defense

Fr. Pat Wattigny. Credit: Archdiocese of New Orleans
Fr. Pat Wattigny. Credit: Archdiocese of New Orleans

.- The Archdiocese of New Orleans defended on Friday its handling of Fr. Pat Wattigny, a priest who sent text messages to at least one high school student in violation of archdiocesan policy. An attorney representing the student said the priest’s texts were grooming behavior, and the archdiocesan response put students at risk.

“This man preyed on kids who were at risk, sons who were in need of strong, strong male figures in their lives, and that's what he gave them,” attorney Bill Arata told CNA Oct. 9, in reference to Fr. Pat Wattigny, who was until July chaplain at John Paul II High School in Slidell, Louisiana.

Wattigny was removed from ministry Oct. 1, after he admitted that in 2013 he sexually abused a minor, the same year he was transferred from ministry at Archbishop Rummel High School outside New Orleans. That matter has reportedly been referred to law enforcement.

Until July, Wattigny was chaplain of John Paul II High School in Slidell, Louisiana.

Arata told CNA that in February 2020, he presented the archdiocese with 50 pages of text messages between Wattigny and students, which he claims were part of a pattern of grooming.

Arata said the texts repeatedly asked a male student when he would turn 18, and that both texts and calls came at inappropriate hours.

“So let me just be blunt. The calls came at midnight, one-o-clock in the morning. If that's all you knew about a priest communicating with a child, a minor, we could stop there, right?”

“But we don't. Let's take it to the next level. No fewer— and I'm not talking about one child, I'm talking about several— but let's just use a one-child situation. Six, seven times, he wanted to know when the child would turn 18. He brought him special lunches, he invited him to his house in Georgia, he's sending pictures at Christmas from the house in Georgia,” Arata said.

“Did he mean with his mom? His dad? Maybe his older brother? No, none of those texts went to anybody but the child,” the attorney claimed.

The archdiocese claims that the texts did not contain “sexual references or innuendo” but still violated the archdiocesan policies about communication with youth.

The priest was reportedly admonished by archdiocesan officials to stop sending texts and permitted to remain in ministry at the school. He remained chaplain until he sent additional texts to at least one student and was reportedly sent by the archdiocese for a psychological evaluation.

Arata claims that an archdiocesan attorney acknowledged to him that the texts were grooming behavior, and that the priest began texting just six weeks or so after he was told to stop contacting children.

CNA requested copies of text messages to review, but Arata said his clients had not given him permission to release them to the media.

The school’s principal, Douglas Triche, wrote to parents this week saying that he had not been notified about the inappropriate texts sent by Wattigny. But Arata raised objections to Triche’s claims.

Triche told parents, Arata said, “that he may have heard rumors, but he did not know. Who'd he hear the rumors from? When did he hear the rumors? Why didn't he act when he heard them? Those are questions I would automatically ask.”

The principal could not be reached by CNA for comment.

Arata told CNA that he believes the archdiocese had reason to be suspicious of Wattigny when the text messages were initially reported.

“The archdiocese has moved him seven times in 26 years. The average contract is five years, right? Help me understand, that's 3.7 years per place. Why'd you move him? And then they want us to believe that the first time they ever heard of an issue at Rummel was on Thursday, October 1, 2020?” Wattigny asked.

The lawyer also said that he supplied additional text messages from the priest to students after the initial batch in February, and that he was told it was being handled. Then in June, he says he was told the priest was being sent for a psychological evaluation.

The lawyer said that if the text messages to students did not represent a problem, the archdiocese would have had no reason to send the priest for an evaluation. He said sending the priest for an evaluation confirms that the archdiocese knew the texts were not appropriate.

In a statement on Friday, in which New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond addressed the situations of Wattigny and Fr. Travis Clark, a New Orleans priest arrested for filming pornographic videos on an altar, Aymond said that Wattigny would never again serve in public ministry.

Aymond said of the 2013 abuse, “there was no prior accusation and we knew nothing about the abuse before Oct. 1.”

The archbishop repeated his claim that “the texts did not indicate abuse and there was no allegation of sexual abuse. I am sorry for the pain that this has caused.”

After the archbishop released his statement, CNA asked the archdiocese who at the archdiocese had evaluated the texts, and whether the archdiocese considered them to constitute grooming behavior.

“We stand by the assertion that they are not sexual in nature and did not indicate abuse but were a violation of our Technology Policy,” a spokesperson for the archdiocese told CNA.

Arata, whose child is a student at John Paul II High School, told CNA that he and his clients are weighing options regarding the possibility of litigation.

Jonah McKeown contributed to this report.

Tags: Catholic News, Archdiocese of New Orleans, Clerical sexual abuse, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Fr. Pat Wattigny

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