Sex Charges Split Parish
Priest's Life Shakes Faith
By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
July 24, 1995
In Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, amid the drying shrimp nets and neat, white-washed cemeteries of Catholic South Louisiana, the church is struggling with new charges of sex abuse by one of its veteran priests.
The case is full of terrible symmetries, reminders of ecclesiastical nightmares a decade ago, in a nearby community much like this.
In many respects, the way the church handles the case of the Rev. Robert Melancon tests how it has learned new lessons for dealing with allegations of pedophilia against priests, with their complex but explosive elements of betrayal and public humiliation - and the stark choices of either ruined children or slandered priests as the penalty for mismanagement.
The case is unfolding in the communities around Houma and Thibodaux, French Catholic bayou country culturally identical and geographically close to Abbeville - the Ground Zero of priestly pedophilia cases in the United States.
Abbeville is where the church first learned in 1983 that it had a massive problem with a handful of sexually disordered priests who molested children - and where, its bishops now acknowledge, the church's own misplaced compassion became part of the problem.
Even some of the characters are the same. Two civil lawyers who figure in the Houma-Thibodaux case are veterans of the Abbeville cases.
And perhaps the most disturbing similarity of all: The charge against Melancon is the second of its kind in two years. The first was settled without a civil or criminal trial, enabling Melancon to continue his role as priest in a community where priests are revered until they give cause otherwise.
As one resident said last week: "That collar blinds people."
Melancon's letter in this week's parish bulletin comes from a jail cell.
Modeling himself on the imprisoned St. Paul, he asks his parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Cut Off for their prayers "that this painful ordeal will be over soon."
Melancon was arrested June 28 on a charge of aggravated rape, which could mean a life sentence for the 59-year-old priest, if convicted.
Houma police said at a court hearing June 30 that the charge comes from a 17-year-old youth at Annunziata Parish in Houma, where Melancon was stationed for six years before going to Sacred Heart four years ago.
The youth told police Melancon began fondling and kissing him when they were alone in the rectory, beginning when the child was about 6 or 7 years old.
About two years later came acts of sodomy with growing frequency, "up to the point where it was at least once a week," Houma Juvenile Detective Melvin Wolf told the court.
The relationship ended, Wolf said, when Melancon moved to Sacred Heart.
In addition, Wolf said, he interviewed another person in Thibodaux who described a years-long sexual relationship with Melancon, beginning when that person was a child. And he heard of another potential victim in Melancon's current parish, although he had not verified that claim, Wolf told the court earlier this month.
Melancon now is on paid leave from his pulpit, said Louis Aguirre, spokesman for Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese.
He has not entered a formal plea yet, nor has the charge been presented to a grand jury. He has his own attorney, George Simno III, rather than a lawyer from the diocese, and the diocese has made Melancon a "limited commitment" in the form of a loan to help with his legal fees, Aguirre said.
Simno has declined to comment on the case.
Last week, an anonymous benefactor made Melancon's bond with a $1 million cashier's check, freeing him to live at an undisclosed location. Although the check was proffered by Kenneth Watkins, the diocese's attorney, Watkins and Aguirre said the diocese is not connected with the offer.
Not surprisingly, Melancon's case has split the parish.
Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes occupy a landscape where Catholicism as culture is inseparable from Catholicism as faith.
In Houma, the cathedral is across the street from the civil courthouse. Crucifixes memorializing dead relatives line the two-lane highways bordering Bayou Lafourche, and it's not unusual to see a bumper sticker on a ragged pickup that says, "Thank God for our priests and religious."
But for months, Sacred Heart has been riven over Melancon's tenure for reasons even more complicated than sexual abuse.
By many accounts a strong-willed pastor, Melancon offended in various ways a good many Sacred Heart parishioners with what they described as a rigid inflexibility and a lack of social skills.
Some parishioners complained of being reprimanded publicly for their affection for conservative devotion, like genuflecting before receiving communion, which Melancon thought inappropriate and unnecessary.
Many also believe Melancon is the reason behind the reassignment of the Rev. Van Constant, a young associate with a following in the parish.
By last year Sacred Heart was split between "people who loved him, and people who couldn't stand him," Aguirre said. The parish was losing members, collections were declining and Jarrell had received at least three delegations asking for Melancon's removal.
Jarrell elected not to, he said in letters after the meetings, citing in part the fact that Melancon still enjoyed considerable support among other parishioners.
But there was more in the air than mere personality clash.
For months a remarkable legal document had been circulating through the communities of Bayou Lafourche.
Still legible after countless generations of photocopying, the document, dated Sept. 30, 1993, describes a $30,000 payment by the diocese's insurer to settle an unidentified person's claim of sexual misconduct against Melancon.
The claim dates from an assignment at St. Genevieve Parish in Thibodaux, where Melancon served from 1973 to 1985. That was before his assignment to Annunziata, the site of the current charge, and two assignments before his current posting at Sacred Heart.
Without admitting guilt or liability, the diocese settled the man's claim, described as "improper sexual behavior or sexual harassment" over 11 years, from 1973 to 1984.
The settlement claim is the only source of information about the alleged incident.
Although Houma-Thibodaux's written policy commits the diocese to notifying law enforcement of such allegations when the law requires so, diocesan officials decided this was not such a case, Aguirre said.
"The person making the allegations was at that time a married adult . . . who was represented by an attorney of his choosing," the diocese said in a written statement last week. "The diocese therefore made no report to anyone."
Contacted Friday in Abbeville, Anthony Fontana, who represented the Thibodaux accuser - and who handled some of the Abbeville pedophilia cases against the church in the early 1980s - said that interpretation was probably correct.
But he insisted that Jarrell's decision to return Melancon to the pulpit was disastrously wrong.
Melancon, who denied the St. Genevieve allegation, was placed on leave and sent for a month of intensive outpatient psychiatric evaluation at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, Aguirre said.
Ochsner gave Melancon "a green light" to return to the ministry, he said. Moreover, the Thibodaux youth had urged diocesan officials to contact certain people who he said would back up his story - but those people denied it, Aguirre said. "So there was no corroborating evidence."
There were, however, some greeting cards the youth said Melancon had sent over the years.
Fontana said Friday he is convinced the diocese decided to settle when its attorneys saw the cards. Mailed in the early 1980s, some contain handwritten notes that diocesan officials last week said "may be classified as 'suggestive.' "
Although mostly filled with mundane observations about daily routine and the weather, the author also makes occasional requests about the health of "Willie." The term "Willie" is a pet name that figured in the sexual play between Melancon and the person he interviewed in Thibodaux, Wolf told the court earlier this month.
In any event, the diocese settled, Aguirre said, on the advice of insurers who wanted to avoid a costly legal fight.
"It was not that we were admitting guilt. . . ." Aguirre said. "It was more not to bring it to the level of a legal battle."
However, over the objections of the diocese's counsel, Fontana insisted the settlement contain no financial penalties to his client if it became public - which it soon did - to the consternation of Sacred Heart parishioners, and to the detriment of Melancon's ministry there.
Melancon even once referred to rumors about his past from the pulpit, using the forum to deny them to his congregation, several parishioners said.
Fontana, who says the church has mishandled past sex-abuse cases, said Friday he demanded a non-confidential settlement so he and his client could be free to tell investigators their version of Melancon's behavior in Thibodaux if there were other accusations in the future.
He said he was sure there would be, adding that he thinks other victims may surface, given the publicity so far in the latest case.
"I told them I'm going to do everything I can to prove that I put you on notice," he said of his talks with diocesan officials at the time, "so that if he goes out and does something else to some other kid, I'm going to be on the steps of courthouse telling the DA to put the bishop in jail."
"That's the one thing that's going to stop this," Fontana said. "When a district attorney gets enough evidence to put a bishop in jail for criminal negligence, you're going to see the church finally change."
It is against that backdrop that the new charges struck the Houma-Thibodaux diocese.
Aguirre said the victim in the Annunziata case told officials at his school April 26 that he had been repeatedly molested by Melancon.
School officials told the youth's mother and law enforcement officials, Aguirre said. She also told officials at Annunziata, who immediately forwarded the complaint to diocesan headquarters, he said.
On May 24, Melancon was sent for another psychiatric evaluation, this time at St. John Vianney Psychiatric Hospital in Downington, Pa. That trip lasted about two weeks; a report has not been returned yet, Aguirre said.
After his departure for Pennsylvania, Melancon never returned to the pulpit at Sacred Heart.
Beset by new accusations, he left Cut Off and lived for a few weeks at the New Orleans-area family home of Miami Archbishop John Favalora, an old friend whom Melancon had hoped to join for a holiday in Rome this summer, according to court testimony.
A civil suit against Melancon and the church soon followed, brought by New Orleans attorney Raul Bencomo, another veteran of the Abbeville litigation.
Sinking into depression, Melancon checked into a psychiatric unit at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.
He was a Touro patient when he surrendered himself June 28 on an arrest warrant to become a prisoner of Terrebonne Parish.
A photo caption in Monday's editions of The Times-Picayune misspelled the name of the Rev. Scott Dugas, shown greeting parishioners outside Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off. The caption also incorrectly referred to Dugas as a temporary replacement for the church. He is the regular associate pastor.
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