The One Who Got Away
By Walter Pierce
March 28, 2013
Dr. David Primeaux was beloved in Petersburg, Va. The computer science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University was an active member and past chairman of the Historic Petersburg Foundation, a country-club nonprofit that restores old buildings in this historic city of about 35,000, 23 miles south of the state capital, Richmond, where for nearly two decades he taught at VCU.
In addition to his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Tennessee, Primeaux held a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. His academic interests included non-traditional artificial intelligence — heady topics that, buttressed by his philosophy degree, threw smart, dreamy VCU undergrads into a swoon.
David Primeaux was a popular professor and civic leader. Until Dec. 27, 2012.
That’s the day Petersburg police got a call from Primeaux’s wife telling them he had left the house distraught. Cops made brief contact with the professor via cell phone, but he said his phone battery was about to die and ended the call. The next day in a rural neighboring county, a local resident found Primeaux dead inside his 1986 Mazda pickup parked beside a gravel pit. Cause of death, carbon monoxide poisoning; manner of death, suicide, according to the medical examiner’s office, which only recently released the results.
‘SMART — VERY, VERY SMART’
Petersburg and the VCU community were shocked and dismayed. Newspapers and TV stations reported less on Primeaux’s death - suicide, after all, is a delicate topic — focusing instead on his popularity, and on the tooth gnashing his death occasioned. No one, by these accounts, saw it coming. David Primeaux was 62 years old.
The gushing, heartfelt condolences at his Legacy.com obituary testify to his status: “Words are not enough. A true friend. Someone you could always count on for a kind word, support and humor. He loved to debate theoretical ideas. He was passionate about his students — about all the students. I will miss him immeasurably. He would understand that this is an ‘uncountably infinite’ loss,” writes one mourner. “Dr. Primeaux provided me a wondrous opportunity and I wouldn’t have had the experiences in my life had he not been not only an excellent mentor but a superb role model,” writes another.
But until 1985, David Primeaux was a priest in South Louisiana, mainly in Lafayette Parish. A priest who molested children. A priest who benefitted from the church’s willingness — eagerness, it can easily be argued — to play shell games with its most toxic clergy, moving them around after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. A priest who got away with it.
And the Rev. David Primeaux was, in many ways, forgettable. The infamous Gilbert Gauthe saga began spilling its messy entrails all over everything in 1983. Gauthe probably molested hundreds of kids in Vermilion Parish, although he was prosecuted on only a fraction.
About the time Gauthe was convicted and sent off to prison in the mid 1980s, Primeaux, an Abbeville native, slipped quietly out of his collar. The story is sketchy for almost the next decade. He got a Ph.D. — we know that. He taught a few years in the mid ’90s at Troy University in Alabama, landing an assistant professorship at VCU in ’96.
About the time he was completing his doctoral degree in 1991 — he got the philosophy doctorate in the mid ’70s as lagniappe on the church’s dime after completing seminary — Primeaux and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette were named as defendants in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct. Perhaps experiencing priest-sex-abuse fatigue, local media hardly noticed.
The suit was brought by the son of a former lay employee at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Milton where Primeaux served as pastor from 1982-85. We’ve chosen not to identify the plaintiff. He still lives in Acadiana and, according to a brother who agreed to speak with us on the condition we not identify the family, struggles with depression and chemical dependency, which he blames in large part on having been molested by Primeaux when he was 12 and 13 years old. Anthony Fontana, an Abbeville attorney who has pressed several molestation suits against the church, represented the victim.
“David was smart — very, very smart — with an engaging personality,” recalls Fontana, who coincidentally knew Primeaux first as childhood friends; the two were altar boys together at St. Mary Magadalen Church in Abbeville. “In fact, I remember going to his first mass. Your first mass is always back in your home town, so it was here at St. Mary Magdalen.
“Every now and then over the years I ran into him. Very, very hip looking. Younger than most priests. Wore [polarized eye] glasses that turned color.”
According to Fontana and other accounts, once Primeaux settled on an intended victim, he used hunting and fishing trips — adventures that required an overnight stay at Primeaux’s house due to the next morning’s early departure — as a means of getting the victim isolated. He also employed his favorite pastime, sailing, to lure young boys.
But by the time Fontana’s client came forward with allegations — eight years later — Primeaux had left the priesthood and Louisiana, and the statute of limitations for prosecuting him had kicked in. The two sides settled the suit before it went to trial. Fontana says he can’t recall what the settlement was but believes “it was decent.”
‘A REMARKABLE MAN AMONGST HIS PEERS’
It’s foolhardy to speculate why the professor killed himself. Primeaux left no known suicide note. Calls and emails to VCU colleagues and to associates with the Historic Petersburg Foundation went largely unanswered for this story. Was Primeaux racked with guilt? Were his secrets finally oozing to the surface? Was he being blackmailed? We’ll probably never know.
Only one person in Petersburg, City Councilman W. Howard Myers, responded to our query about Primeaux. Myers was one of three friends of the late professor who spoke at his memorial service in an Episcopal church in Petersburg, praising Primeaux’s gift for finding common ground and getting things done on behalf of the community. “I have nothing to add or withdraw from the statements made during Dr. David Primeaux’s ceremony or interview with the VCU student newspaper,” Myers writes in an email. “I will confirm the history of a decent, well-respected man and loving husband whom I’ve known for the past 10 years. With that said, he was a remarkable man amongst his peers.”
Myers didn’t address our question about whether he or others were aware of or had even heard rumors of Primeaux’s ecclesiastical past.
But Primeaux’s history as a priest, though it appears to have been a well-manicured secret, had a toehold in innuendo. A law enforcement official in Petersburg who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of Primeaux’s death, says he had heard the priest rumor when his daughter attended VCU several years ago. But it was merely that — a rumor. “Someone said that they found him on a list of abusive priests,” the official says. “You have the background that we were hearing. Once he disappeared and was found [dead] it was no longer our issue.”
Petersburg police only assisted in the Primeaux investigation because he committed suicide in another jurisdiction. While Petersburg is a relatively small town, the official we spoke to isn’t sure how widely known Primeaux’s past was within the community. “The people that I do know that eat downtown all the time, have drinks downtown all the time, said, ‘Oh, he was a really great guy. I really liked him.’ But nobody ever said, ‘Jeez, his past caught up with him.’”
‘IT GAVE ME GOOD COVER’
There’s no question, however, that David Primeaux was a child molester. He admitted it to psychologists in evaluations beginning in 1980. A 16-page report on two of those sessions — one seven hours long, the other six — in November and December of 1984 was obtained by Fontana during the discovery phase of the civil lawsuit. The sessions were conducted by Dr. Edward Shwery of Metairie. The report was originally sent to Dr. Kenneth Bouillion in Lafayette, who was contracted by the diocese to counsel priests including Primeaux.
“David reported that the first instance of sexual abuse of an adolescent occurred when he was 27 years old and teaching at St. Benedict in Covington, Louisiana,” Shwery writes in the report to Bouillion. “During the 14 months when he was on staff as an instructory [sic], he engaged in sexual contact with 5 students. One of the students (18 years old) disclosed this to the rector who then confronted David.
David adamently [sic] denied the allegation and the matter was dropped. After several months, another student also reported sexual involvement with David to the rector and the rector once again confronted David. During the confrontation he refused to accept David’s denials and instructed David to suspend his teaching duties and leave the institution at once.”
Primeaux landed in Lafayette where he managed a media outreach office for the diocese.
Shwery continues: “As we discussed this he recalls, ‘it gave me a good cover, they said they needed me in the diocese and so I could more comfortable [sic] explain my leaving St. Benedict.’ David then disclosed to Father Paul Metrejean (the Vicar for the clergy) and Father Al Sigur that he had been asked to leave for problems of sexual molestation. Both priests encouraged David to seek psychological help from you and, as you know, he saw you for treatment in 1980.
“... He reports that he sought the professional help only because he was encouraged to do so, but had little consideration privately for such help.”
‘HE BECAME ATTRACTED TO CHILDREN’
The Rev. Al Sigur, one of the priests in whom Primeaux confided his dark past, was later elevated to monsignor. There’s now a Lafayette diocesan office, the Monsignor Sigur Service Center, that “offers financial assistance and case care management to individuals and families experiencing unexpected crises in the areas of housing, utility, medical, transportation, funeral and other emergencies,” according to the diocese website.
Sigur’s role as confidante wasn’t happenstance: After being ordained in the spring of 1976, Primeaux’s first assignment was at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Lafayette under Sigur. Primeaux was at Fatima for a couple of years, until he accepted the teaching job at St. Benedict in Covington — the position from which he was banished within 14 months.
But during his brief stint at Fatima, according to Shwery, “he became attracted to children who were available through the church to accompany him on hunting and fishing trips. Two of the children in the 8th grade were molested by David.”
There’s no evidence Sigur was aware of Primeaux’s transgressions at Fatima, but Shwery’s report clearly shows Sigur knew about the molestations in Covington.
Primeaux briefly left the media outreach office following disagreements with diocesan hierarchy over operations of the office. It’s unclear how he served the church in the interim, but, according to Shwery’s report, he soon “received a call from Father Sigur who was starting a new Catholic high school in Lafayette. David was asked to assume the directorship of the adult education center which was attached to the school. He accepted the position which he filled for 18 months.”
That high school is St. Thomas More. Now digest it: A confessed pedophile priest is asked by a superior who is aware of his pedophilia to work at an office headquartered in a high school.
‘IT SEEMED LIKE IT WAS ACCIDENTAL, BUT IT REALLY WASN’T’
Primeaux appears to have left the priesthood for good in 1985 after his tenure at St. Joseph in Milton. A church history on the St. Joseph website says only that “Fr. Primeaux left to continue his studies on the East Coast in April 1985 and did not return to the parish.”
“David stated that confrontation with those with whom he had sexual contact was very infrequent, ‘because of the way I choose to do it. I planned it so it seemed like it was accidental, but it really wasn’t,’” Shwery quotes Primeaux, adding later, “David reports that since he began as a parish priest at Milton, he had sexually [sic] contact with 7 altar boys from the ages of 13 through 16 years.”
These psychological examinations conducted by Shwery in 1984 were concurrent with Primeaux’s tenure in Milton.
One of the altar boys mentioned in Shwery’s report is the brother of the victim represented by Fontana, the Abbeville attorney. The brother tells us he initially didn’t report the sexual contact with Primeaux to anyone of authority — especially not his mother, who worked with Primeaux in Milton — only to a therapist when he, too, struggled with chemical dependency during his 20s, and eventually to his mother when, he admits, he was high on ecstasy.
“He would have me sleep at his house,” the brother writes in an email exchange with IND Monthly. “Usually because we were leaving early in the morning to go sailing.
“After trust is established he would make his move while you were sleeping in the same bed with him. You never thought anything about sharing a bed with an adult because you had done it with your parents. He didn’t make his move the first time — but later.”
Primeaux also appears to have selected victims based on what he perceived to be vulnerabilities. In the case of the secretary’s sons, that vulnerability was a Vietnam vet father who, when he wasn’t distant, was abusive.
“He appeared to be generally interested in what you had to say, what your interests were and he was good at validating you,” recalls the brother. “He was accommodating, adventurous, engaging and fun.
“As a kid who had a strained relationship with his father, it was nice to feel like you were OK, that you weren’t the idiot you were told you were; there was nothing wrong with you. It was nice that an older male took an interest in you and seemed to care. He did all of the things that one would think a father would do. I’m sure this is part of the manipulation used to gain trust and to get you to drop your defenses.”
Fontana corroborates that characterization, referring to Primeaux, Gauthe and a generation of predatory priests as cool, hip and accessible to young people. They drove sports cars and had motorcycles and boats and pursued “youthful” pastimes. “That’s how they do it,” Fontana says. “They are the best manipulators of giving the most positive image to your kids.
“And what’s better? The rapist puts on the ski mask; the preacher’s got the collar.
“Now we know. Nobody would believe that back then.”
In fact, when the allegations started to come out about Gauthe and a few other priests, heavily Roman Catholic South Louisiana didn’t rally around the victims.
“Nine boys were the first group to report all this stuff. But they caught hell from the community; people didn’t believe this,” Fontana recalls.
The brother of Fontana’s client says his mother was devastated when she learned almost 10 years after the fact what Primeaux had done to her sons. “In some ways I think she had it worse,” he writes. “It could be called spiritual rape.
“She had a strong faith and thought Primeaux would be a good influence and make up for the lack of a father figure. She trusted him and the church, only to be taken advantage of.”