The Church on Trial: Part 1
Rage in Louisiana
By David Kohn
June 12, 2002
Thursday morning, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in America will be in Dallas for what many believe will be one of the most important meetings in the long history of the Church. In Boston, New York, Los Angeles-nearly every major American city-priests are under investigation for committing sex crimes against children, and bishops are being sued for facilitating those crimes.
But perhaps the most shocking thing about these scandals is how long they've been going on. Pedophile priests shifted from one parish to another? It's happened before. Bishops covering up sexual assaults on children? It's happened before. Hiding documents, blaming the victims, secrecy agreements? It's all happened before.
Why is it taking the Roman Catholic leadership so long to make the church safe for its children? Ed Bradley found some answers in Louisiana, in a case that could have taught the Church nearly everything it needed to know about that - 19 years ago.
Southwest Louisiana is Cajun country - bayous, rice farms, and hundreds of small country churches. In this part of the country, nearly everyone is Catholic, and few would question the authority of the Church. It was here, in Vermillion Parish, that Father Gilbert Gauthe molested scores of children.
"Father Gauthe was the first pedophile priest ever brought to trial in the United States, and he was my client," says Ray Mouton, who was 37 and a staunch Catholic when the Diocese of Lafayette asked him to defend Father Gauthe.
"My family founded the town, my family gave the land where the Cathedral sits in Lafayette. I was as Catholic as you can come, fifth generation," he says.
He had never handled a case like this before. "I never even heard of anybody like Gilbert Gauthe before this," he says.
In 1984, Father Gauthe was indicted on 34 counts of sex crimes against children. But his superiors in the Church had known about his crimes for 10 years. Gauthe molested his first victims in Broussard, Louisiana, where he was associate pastor at a Church near an elementary school. When the Bishop learned what Gauthe had done, he told him to confess his sins, and the bishop never mentioned it again. But the abuse continued at his next parish, and so did the complaints.
Then Gauthe was moved to Abbeville Louisiana. After two different assignments where he had problems with having sex with young boys, the bishop appointed him as chaplain for the Boy Scouts.
Then Father Gauthe got a promotion. He became pastor at two country churches, in Esther and nearby Henry. He was the only priest there.
"He set altar boy practice for early in the morning and then he would tell a parent it's not necessary for you to drive all the way from your farmhouse to bring your child to practice, he can spend the night at the rectory. And he would have these slumber parties. Four and five kids over four, five, six nights a week."
What did he do with these boys? "Every sexual act you can imagine two males doing," Mouton says.
For five years, none of Father Gauthe's altar boys talked about what was happening at the Church at night. Then one of them decided he couldn't keep silent any longer.
"This little boy had this terrible secret that was burdening him and he then told his father," says Mouton.
The boy's father was Wayne Sagrera, an alligator farmer who still lives just outside of Esther.
"Probably the most difficult day of my life," Sagrera says of the day his son told him. "To hear him and see him and the pain that he was going through." His son was ten years old at the time.
What Sagrera didn't know was that Father Gauthe had molested not just one, but three of his four sons. When he learned that, Sagrera called the bishop's office. Church officials there told him Father Gauthe had to stay in the parish-because they had nobody to replace him.
"I called and cussed and told him you either get him out of here or someone's gonna kill the son of a bitch and it might be me," Sagrera says. "He's gonna die. The relationship between a father and his sons is a powerful thing. And you just best get him out of here. And that's what it took to remove him."
Within weeks, parents all around the parish learned that Father Gauthe had molested their sons as well. The Diocese assigned Gauthe's former supervising pastor in Abbeville, Monsignor Richard Mouton, to deal with the situation. But what the Monsignor told Sagrera only made him angrier.
"(The Monsignor) proceeded to tell me a story that when he was first transferred here to my rectory (he) originally had him sleeping downstairs," Sagrera says. "(The Monsignor) moved him to an upstairs bedroom because it was harder for kids to climb in and out of the window."
According to Sagrera, the Monsignor knew he had a problem, so he moved Gauthe from sleeping on the ground floor to an upstairs floor so it'd be harder to get the boys in.
But he didn't cut him off right away.
Sagrera: Certainly not.
Sagrera says he begged Church officials to go to the pulpits during Sunday Mass, and tell families that Father Gauthe may have hurt their children. But they made it clear to Sagrera that was just what they didn't want to do.
"They came forward and said now, if you make this public, and you get other people involved and someone hurts themselves or there's a divorce or a suicide, all of this guilt is on your shoulders. Now this is a priest telling me this, you know, if anything happens, you're to blame. They basically wanted me to cover it up," says Sagrera.
Instead, Sagrera and seven other parents did what for them had once been unthinkable: they sued their Church their bishop and his monsignors. The Church quickly settled. By the summer of 1984, Ray Mouton says the Fathers were confident their problems were over.
"They didn't believe the media would do what they're doing now. They thought that they were above all this. They thought that they could contain it and control it. And they had for years," says Mouton.
But what the Church didn't count on in Louisiana was the testimony of one 11-year-old boy.
In 1986, Scott Gastal testified in open court how Father Gauthe had abused him so badly, he had to be hospitalized. A few weeks ago, we talked to Scott.
"I tried to put a stop to it cause I feel that the Church was gonna just try to cover all of it up, act like nothing happened and just move him on down," says Gastal.
Today, he works at a Quarter Horse ranch outside of Abbeville.
"I don't like to be around people. I just try not to feel at all. For the longest time I just tried to black all this out so it wouldn't hurt me no more," he says.
What did Gauthe say or do that made him afraid? "He'd threaten that he'd hurt my family or hurt me. Kept guns on the side of his bed," says Gastal. At the time, Gastal says, he was 7 or 8 years old.
Gastal says the experience still haunts him. Asked if he thinks he will ever get out from under this cloud, he answers, "Probably not."
Jurors wept when they heard Scott's story, then ordered the Church to pay him a million dollars. The next day, February 8, 1986, the national news media reported for the first time that a Bishop did nothing while one of his priests molested altar boys. But Father Gauthe's attorney, Ray Mouton, was more concerned about what the public still didn't know-that his client may have molested hundreds more boys that no one had yet identified.
Mouton says that Gauthe did not remember all the victims. "In fact what we talked in terms of doing was getting the yearbooks from the elementary schools where he was and looking through the yearbooks and seeing what he could remember," Mouton says. "But when I made this suggestion to the Diocese and their lawyers, I mean they looked at me like I had three heads. I mean they were not about to go knock on a known victim's door and advise him, that they knew that he was a victim. As one of the lawyers told me you'd be inviting someone to sue you for a million dollars."
Mouton says the church was aware that what he wanted to do was reach out to the victims.
Their reaction: "None. I never was in a meeting with church personnel where children were discussed."
What was talked about, he says, were "the church, defense motions, money. Press."
What did they plan to do with all those victims? "Nothing," Mouton says: no apology, no counseling, no therapy.
The diocese did send Father Gauthe to therapy in the 1970s, when they learned he was molesting children. But Father Gauthe soon quit his treatment, and the Diocese never followed up with him or his therapist. Monsignor Alexandre Larroque, who handled Father Gauthe's case, has said they simply didn't understand pedophilia then, and didn't know how to treat it. He declined to talk to 60 Minutes II, but in 1986, he spoke to CBS correspondent Jane Wallace.
She asked him how he could have let it go on for so long. "That's a difficult question," he said. "And I don't know that I can answer the question. The…you know it would be very simple to say we didn't know it was going on, and that's the simple answer."
"But you did, you'd known as far as 10 years back, the bishop had. You knew sometime in the 70s," Wallace said.
"I don't know that speculation or hindsight as to what was known in the past and the appropriateness of the actions taken serves any purpose now. Uh, it's uh our whole position is we have the situation as tragic as it is and we move forward," he answered.
"Knowing what we know now from the very first incident there would have been a complete different chain of events," he said.
"You'd never had to deal with someone like this before?" she asked him.
"No," he answered.
But they had. In a later lawsuit, Monsignor Larroque and other church officials turned over evidence that at least eight other priests in the Diocese had been molesting children-years before Gilbert Gauthe was indicted.
"In the beginning, I thought Gauthe was a single aberrant individual. Within a year, I believed that there was a small cult of pedophiles within the Catholic Church in this country, and now I believe it's a culture, a clerical culture within this country-that it's that widespread," says Mouton.
Mouton was shocked. "It was a feeling of horror. I mean I had children exactly the age of the victims at the time. It was a feeling of horror. But it was not near as devastating as seeing how the hierarchy responded and failed to respond. And I felt when I went to the next level in the church I would find something different. And the higher I went, the less there was," he says.
In Washington DC, the Vatican Embassy was growing increasingly concerned about the news from Louisiana. In 1984, the case was assigned to one of the Embassy's canon lawyers, Father Tom Doyle. Father Doyle says he was shocked to learn that Gauthe was only one of many priests who'd molested children in the Lafayette Diocese.
"I was bewildered. I guess I was losing my innocence rather rapidly. I was upset and I also said something's gotta be done. We've gotta do the right thing. And I really sincerely believed the system would do the right thing," Doyle says.
This case was being watched at the highest levels of the church.
Says Doyle: "Certainly the Vatican Ambassador is pretty high level. It was being watched by the National Conference of Catholic bishops at the time, which is fairly high level. I know there was a lot of discussion privately among bishops about the problem because many of them realized they had situations in their own backyards that they would have to deal with. So they knew."
So did the Vatican. After a series of alarming reports from Father Tom Doyle, Pope John Paul II made an extraordinary appointment-he sent Bishop A.J. Quinn of Cleveland to Louisiana, to investigate the unfolding scandal and advise the Church what to do about it.
Mouton: The Vatican has been taking the position that this is all new to them. Well Gilbert Gauthe was the very first case in the United States, and they appointed AJ Quinn in writing. AJ Quinn puts the Vatican's fingerprints on this problem in 1985.
That year, Ray Mouton and Father Tom Doyle gave Bishop Quinn a confidential report which warned the Church that cases of pedophile priests are "arising with increased frequency" around the country, and could eventually cost the Church "one billion dollars." Mouton and Doyle asked Bishop Quinn to take the report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"They had a press conference in 1985, at this big meeting they said we're gonna establish a committee to study this. I asked one of my contacts in the hierarchy who was on this committee. And he said there is no committee. It's window dressing," says Doyle.
"In a nutshell they did nothing," says Doyle.
That was 1985. Tomorrow, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will finally hold their first national meeting dedicated to the problems Doyle and Mouton urged them to address, 17 years ago.
In 1985, Gilbert Gauthe was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released after 10 years for good behavior. 10 months later, Gauthe was arrested in Texas for molesting a three-year-old boy. Authorities there sentenced him to seven years' probation, which he is still serving.
In 1986, Ray Mouton resigned as Gilbert Gauthe's attorney.
The case changed his beliefs radically: "I have no belief in the Catholic Church. None," he says. "It's all gone. I went too many places I saw too many things."
"Today I'm fine. But I'm not in the Church," he says.
Scott Gastal never got a penny of the million dollars the jury awarded him. In 1986, a judge released the money to his parents, who-with other members of his family-lost it in bad investments.
Gastal says he would do the same thing again. "I believe what I did was right. I put-I tried to put a stop to it," he says. He says that no one in the church has ever apologized to him. "I don't think I would accept it."
Why not? "The way I was treated, like a liar. They sure didn't make it any easier on me."
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