Before Priest Pat Wattigny Admitted Sex Abuse, Texts to Student LED to Resignation from Slidell School, Church Says
By Ramon Antonio Vargas and David Hammer
October 2, 2020
About four months before the Rev. Patrick Wattigny disclosed to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans that he sexually abused a minor in 2013, he resigned from his post as chaplain at Pope John Paul II High School because he had sent a student a series of text messages that violated diocesan policies, church officials said Friday.
An attorney representing the student's family alleged the messages constituted “grooming” for sexual activity, including repeatedly asking the boy the date of his 18th birthday. A statement from the archdiocese denied that any of the messages contained sexual references “or innuendo,” but they nonetheless represented a breach of archdiocesan policy mandating professionally toned communications with students.
The archdiocese said a disciplinary investigation into the messages not only prompted Wattigny’s resignation from the school but it also led the priest disclosing his abuse of another juvenile about seven years ago.
Neither the family attorney, Bill Arata, nor the archdiocese provided The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate or WWL television the text messages.
Archdiocesan officials said they reported Wattigny to law enforcement immediately upon receiving his sexual abuse admission Thursday but that, as of Friday afternoon, they had no “other allegations of sexual abuse of a minor” by him. Wattigny would not comment when reached by phone.
News of the text messages surfaced a day after Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced that Wattigny, 53, had been removed from ministry and added to the Catholic church’s list of clergy credibly accused of molesting children or teens.
The archdiocese said Wattigny told church officials Thursday afternoon that he had sexually abused a minor seven years ago. Though 2013 was when his long tenure as pastor of St. Benilde Parish in Metairie and chaplain of Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie ended, and he was transferred to the north shore, the archdiocese said Friday it was unaware of any alleged abuse, and his move was unrelated.
Most recently, he has been pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist near Slidell.
The disclosure that Wattigny engaged in sexual misconduct less than a decade ago sent shockwaves through the local Catholic community. The alleged abuse occurred despite continued assurances from church leaders in recent years that child protection policies adopted almost two decades ago had rooted out predator priests.
Now, the allegations of inappropriate text messages sent earlier this year have put the focus on Wattigny’s more recent activities and postings.
The archdiocese said its general counsel, Susan Zeringue, met the mother of Arata’s client in February, and both reviewed a series of text messages, culled from the student's phone, between Wattigny and the boy. The mother did not accuse Wattigny of sexually abusing her son, but she was concerned about the texting, which the archdiocese’s statement described as “overly familiar in tone.”
Arata on Friday contended the tone was worse than that. Besides asking the boy multiple times when he would reach adulthood, Wattigny sent suggestive remarks, some in the wee hours, Arata said. The lawyer wouldn’t elaborate but said the messages violated rules forbidding school staff from to contact students without another adult copied on the conversation, among other things.
“Within the text messages are proof of gifts, special lunches, private meetings in the office,” Arata said.
Both the archdiocese and Arata said Wattigny continued sending texts to the student after the February meeting, and Zeringue was again provided copies. While those messages still didn’t contain sexual references or innuendo, Zeringue again sent them to archdiocesan higher-ups.
This time, the archdiocese said the messages violated policies governing communications between church personnel and young people whom they encounter during their work. The church asked Wattigny to resign his position at Pope John Paul II, although he remained pastor at St. Luke, about a mile from the school’s campus.
The archdiocese didn’t say exactly when Wattigny resigned from Pope John Paul II. Arata said Zeringue informed him in June that Wattigny had left the school and was also undergoing “a sex abuse evaluation” at a clinic. The archdiocese on Friday used different terms for that evaluation, describing it as “assessments for professional insight.”
Whatever the case, the archdiocese said its handling of the text messages directly led to Wattigny disclosing abuse of a minor in 2013.
Arata was incredulous that the archdiocese said that, arguing that the church had grounds to discipline Wattigny much sooner. “It seems like [their statement] is a lot of fancy words for, ‘We knew, and we did nothing about it,’” Arata said.
Photos show Wattigny addressing attendees of Pope John Paul II’s graduation ceremony on July 28. And Arata said he was bothered that Wattigny had been allowed back on the Pope John Paul II campus for a September event honoring the 40th anniversary of the school's founding.
“When you act, act when you first hear about a thing, not eight months later. These are our children,” said Arata, who has a son at Pope John Paul II. “We entrust our children to you.”
Wattigny was replaced as Pope John Paul II’s chaplain by the Rev. Travis Clark, whom Pearl River police arrested Thursday on an obscenity charge. Pearl River’s police chief would not release details about the case, saying it remained under investigation. Obscenity cases against men typically involve the alleged public exposure of the genitals or buttocks.
Aymond said Clark, who remained jailed Friday morning, was accused of targeting women. The archbishop removed Clark from ministry on Thursday as well.
Wattigny was ordained in 1994 and had been at Pope John Paul II and St. Luke since 2013. He was president of Pope John Paul II for the 2017-18 academic school year, although the archdiocese said it ultimately eliminated his position amid an administrative realignment.
He had been the pastor at St. Benilde in Metairie and chaplain at nearby Archbishop Rummel High School for 13 years beginning in 2000. In the six years before that, he worked at St. Peter Parish in Covington, Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner.