A life hiding as the first priest charged in the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal
By Kirsten Fiscus
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
April 22, 2019
|Gilbert Gauthe, the former Lafayette diocese priest who admitted to molesting dozens of boys, lives now in San Leon, Texas, where he regularly registers as sex offender.|
|A customer finishes paying for shrimp at the Eagle Point Fishing Camp, one of the few businesses in San Leon, where former Lafayette diocese priest Gilbert Gauthe now lives. Gauthe, who admitted molesting dozens of boys when he was a priest, was the first clergy charged in the U.S.|
|Defrocked priest Gilbert Gauthe leaves jail in 2000.|
A small walking path, impossible to travel without bending plants and palm fronds, leads from the roadway to the small, cramped apartment. Behind all the foliage at the end of the path in a courtyard, unseen from the road, is a large chicken coop with a dozen hens nestled together. They roll their heads around to eye the passersby.
An older man, his shoulders hunched, shuffles to the railing outside of an upstairs apartment. His dogs are barking loudly, and he comes forward to see. He looks over his 1970s-style, wire-rimmed glasses, this frail man peering out on to the overgrown court yard.
“Are you Gilbert?” the visitor asked.
The man squints and turns his head to hear better as the dogs continue to bark from behind his apartment's screen door.
“Yes, hello,” he answered, extending his hand.
At 73, Gilbert Gauthe has made his home far away from Lafayette, the place where the world learned his name. Now he’s an older man, dressed in a plain, blue T-shirt and khaki shorts, his bare feet in sandals standing in this courtyard tucked away from the rest of society.
But 36 years ago, he wore a priest’s collar and lived as a man of God in the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette.
That was before the nation learned of Gauthe more than three decades ago as the Catholic priest who admitted molesting 37 boys. The revelation stunned the country, not yet awakened to an emerging priest abuse scandal that would touch nearly every U.S. diocese. Gauthe made the Lafayette diocese ground zero for what Pope Francis would only recently call the scourge that consumed the Catholic Church.
A little over a week ago, the Lafayette diocese released a list of clergy that officials acknowledged had credible accusations levied over the decades against them of sexually abusing children. Listed among the 33 priests was Gauthe, who more than 30 years earlier had been the country's first Catholic priest to face indictment for child molestation.
“In 1984,” Bishop Douglas Deshotels wrote before releasing the list, “the Diocese of Lafayette was plunged into the heart of a terrible darkness when, for the first time, publicly, the Catholic Church was confronted with the harsh reality that men consecrated for God’s work had betrayed their sacred trust.”
Today, in a quiet town along Galveston Bay, Gauthe lives far away from all that. He stands before his visitor, stubble on his face and wisps of gray hair laid over the top of an otherwise mostly bald head.
He’s just an old man living a life of little means now. And it is a private life.
San Leon does not make much of an impression at first sight.
Aside from a water tower on the south side, the only sign welcoming visitors is a banner bearing the town's name above the cemetery.
It's a place that, unless traveling there on purpose, would be easily missed as vacationers breeze past on Highway 146 to Galveston.
There is a slice of waterfront land featuring large beach houses separated from the seedier guts of this community by wrought iron gates.
But most of this town is not much to look at.
With San Leon making up only five square miles, it would seem hard to hide from neighbors. But that's exactly what Gauthe does. Ask around, and no one seems to recognize his name or face.
Eric Valentino, 46, looked listlessly out of a window at the Eagle Point Fishing Camp, lounging in a chair behind the counter as Windy Marshall, a 72-year-old rugged self-described boat captain, stood near the cash register. Both occasionally picked at grilled-chicken salads in plastic clam-shell containers as they discussed the business.
They grew up in San Leon, before life swept them away and later ferried them back to the area. Marshall served in Vietnam, married, had two daughters and became a high-stakes roller at the casinos spending the last 30 years on a boat off Texas coasts. Valentino grew up at the heels of his father who managed the fish camp and at 18 left to play football at Louisiana State University in the early 1990s.
Valentino and Marshall know a lot of people around San Leon, but they don't know Gauthe.
Although neither Valentino nor Marshall had heard of Gauthe, they weren't surprised by his past.
"Is he a criminal?" Valentino said.
"Is he a sex offender?" Marshall immediately chimed in.
When they hear the answer "yes," it's no surprise.
Being unincorporated, San Leon is left to the jurisdiction of the Galveston County Sheriff's Office and the local volunteer fire department. Add that to low property taxes, meaning less governmental services and oversight, and it's a perfect place for someone "looking to lie low," Valentino said.
"If you want privacy, no HOA's telling you you can't park your boat in your front yard or people digging into your past too much. San Leon is the place for that," he said.
The town has become a haven for those convicted of some of the most horrific crimes, those that would otherwise be treated as social pariahs for their sins.
For every square mile of San Leon, there's an average of 16 sex offenders. That's 83 sex offenders in a town of about 5,000 people. Aside from the monthly police blotter in the local Seabreeze newspaper, there's little mention of those residents' sordid pasts.
"It's just kind of known," Valentino said.
Paying for his crimes
Gauthe may have lived out his life as an unremarkable priest if he hadn't been a serial pedophile. He barely passed seminary, after failing classes at two separate schools.
His attorney, Ray Mouton, once described Gauthe as a "nondescript, mild-mannered, soft-spoken person" that no one would believe could have committed the crimes he did.
Gauthe eventually became ordained in 1971 at 26 years old. It wasn't too long before the first allegation of abuse was made.
Each time a parent or child complained, then-Lafayette Bishop Gerard Frey would order him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and then move him to another parish.
The church's handling of Gauthe's abuse became public after one of many lawsuits was unsealed, unleashing horrendous details about child victims that incited public outrage and led to his indictment on 34 criminal charges. The church, left with no choice, finally suspended Gauthe from his duties, ultimately defrocking him.
The church would pay more than $10 million in settlements and legal fees for Gauthe's crimes.
He pleaded guilty in 1985 to all charges but one - rape. In a deal with prosecutors he was spared from a life sentence that came with a rape conviction, and was ordered to serve 20 years for crimes against nature, child pornography and enticing children to perform sexually immoral acts.
He served half of that sentence.
In September 1995, after Gauthe's release from prison, he moved to Polk County, Texas, where he was accused of molesting a 3-year-old neighbor boy.
With help from a pro bono attorney, and what officials called a weak case, Gauthe pleaded no contest to a charge of injury to a child, avoiding a sex crime.
He served seven years on probation.
Not much to say
Although the Lafayette diocese listed Gauthe and other clergy accused of sexual abuse, very little else was offered about the cases or the priests when the information was released on March 12.
The same diocese that had failed to act when Gauthe's victims reached out in the 1980s withheld details about other sexual abuse cases — What were the priests and deacons accused of? When were the accusations made? Were there multiple allegations made against the clergy? How long did they serve after the accusations?
Now living nearly 220 miles away, Gauthe is far removed from the news of the diocese in his second-story apartment hidden behind overgrown bushes.
He leans over the wooden railing as he stands outside his apartment. He realizes now his visitor standing in the courtyard below is a reporter. As the reporter asks if Gauthe would consider telling his story about his life since his conviction, he politely shakes his head no before hearing the end of the question.
"I've just had bad times talking with reporters," he explained. "The line they always fed me was they wanted my side of the story, but it never came out like that."
Surely he's heard about the diocese releasing the names of other priests like him accused of sexually abusing children?
"I don't pay attention to what's going on with the church," he said.
He's been living here after a short stint in jail for failing to register as a sex offender in 2008. No comment means no trouble for Gauthe. And that's the way he intends to keep it.
He's not going to talk about his life now, after his conviction. He won't speculate on how victims, accused priests and the church can move forward.
Gauthe only wants to be left alone, to lie low.
"I don't have many years left," he said. "I've got cancer. I just want to live comfortably and peacefully."
He apologizes for what he said must have been time wasted traveling to his apartment. And Gauthe waves goodbye, turns and slips back inside, shutting the door behind him.