Catholic chaplain who sexually abused Louisiana students jailed for five years

The Guardian [London, England]

July 12, 2023

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Patrick Wattigny, former high school chaplain who resigned in 2020, pleads guilty to molesting two minors at school

The former chaplain of a Roman Catholic high school in Louisiana has pleaded guilty to molesting two minors whom he met through his work and was ordered to spend five years in prison.

Patrick Wattigny’s plea and sentence on Wednesday came after both of his victims strongly advocated for a harsher punishment. One victim, who was present, described how Wattigny spent time grooming him in the mid-1990s. The victim said Wattigny told him he could help him gain entry to heaven, then took him to a rectory to fondle his genitals. Wattigny also used his fingers to rape the victim while masturbating.

“You sir are not God,” that victim said. “You never were. You never will be.”

In a written statement released to reporters after the guilty plea, the other victim called the sentence given to Wattigny as a “grossly lenient and unfair slap on the wrist”.

The victim added that he did not exercise his right to address either Wattigny or the judge, John Keller, in person because he doubted that anything he said “would have mattered”.

“This sentence makes me feel really worthless and hopeless as a victim,” said the victim’s statement, which was prepared with the help of his attorney, Richard Trahant.

The sentence, handed down by Keller at a state courthouse in the New Orleans-area suburb of Covington, called on Wattigny to also spend five years on probation after being released from prison and register as a sex offender.

An assistant district attorney on Wednesday noted in court that Wattigny was pleading guilty without assurances of leniency from his office and left sentencing up to Keller’s discretion.

Wattigny’s sentence in the end stood in sharp contrast to a separate case in Ohio involving a Catholic priest accused of sexual crimes.

In that Ohio case, a priest Michael Zacharias has been facing between 15 years and life in prison after his federal court conviction in May. He was found to have paid money and threatened harm to three sexually trafficked victims whom he met while ministering. Two of the victims were underage when they were first preyed upon.

Meanwhile, the statement from the victim who was not present alluded to how Keller recently gave gave 10 years in prison to a man who admitted to possessing and trading imagery depicting child abuse but was not accused of directly molesting a minor.

Ordained in 1994 by the archdiocese of New Orleans, Wattigny worked at a number of Catholic institutions in a region with about half a million Catholics. Among those assignments was a chaplaincy at Pope John Paul II high school in Slidell, a south-eastern Louisiana city of about 29,000 people.

He first drew suspicion when school officials learned from a student’s mother that he was sending inappropriate text messages to another pupil at the school. Wattigny was later caught still sending messages to that student. He resigned from his chaplain’s role in the summer of 2020.

Around that time, one of the victims at the center of the case resolved Wednesday went to authorities and reported that Wattigny had molested him in 2013 while he was enrolled as a student at Pope John Paul II.

Investigators arrested Wattigny at a home in Georgia in the fall of 2020. Prosecutors later charged him on those allegations.

He was arrested a second time last year on accusations of molesting a separate child in about 1996 when he worked at St Peter church in Covington and charged on 31 May by prosecutors in connection with that case.

Wattigny was out of jail on separate bonds in the amount of $150,000 and $75,000 before his guilty pleas Wednesday. He had previously entered pleas of not guilty.

Wednesday’s activity in front of Keller came after the victim whose claims led to Wattigny’s first arrest revealed to the Guardian that the defendant was considering what was essentially a plea deal with the judge that would have sent him to prison for just three years.

Since then, Wattigny was charged in connection with the second victim after that interview, apparently adding a couple of more years to the sentence ultimately handed down Wednesday.

Wattigny pleaded guilty as charged as it pertained to the victim from the 2013 abuse. For the other victim, he entered what is known as an Alford plea, in which defendants technically stop short of conceding their guilt but acknowledge strong evidence would have likely led to their convictions.

The victim from the 1990s on Wednesday said he grew up to become a successful mental health professional, sports coach to his three sons, and devoted husband. But, he said, he is still in therapy after Wattigny earned his trust through their mutual love of baseball and the victim’s openness to advice for getting to heaven. Occasionally sobbing, the victim said he realized too late it was a ploy to groom him for the day Wattigny led him to the rectory and abused him.

“He turned on me,” said the victim, as loved ones and his attorney Bill Arata looked on. “I thought he was the closest thing to God. He was the exact opposite.”

Wattigny is among more than 70 priests or deacons that New Orleans’s archdiocese has included on a list of clerics whom local church leaders consider credibly accused of sexually abusing a child or vulnerable adult over the years. Only a small minority of those clerics have been charged by law enforcement, much less convicted.

In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International