Sentence for clergy abuse raises concerns among advocates and attorneys

WVUE [New Orleans LA]

July 13, 2023

By Rob Masson

Advocates for survivors of clergy abuse and legal experts are questioning a five-year sentence handed down for a Northshore priest convicted of molesting juveniles.

They argue that individuals convicted of other sexual offenses often receive much harsher penalties.

In a courtroom filled with tension, a victim of former priest Patrick Wattigny’s sexual abuse recounted his decades-long ordeal, only for his attorneys to leave the courtroom feeling frustrated and angry.

“[My client] believes five years is not enough, which is consistent with the other victim, who gave one of the most amazing victim impact statements I’ve ever heard,” said the victim’s attorney, Rick Trahant.

Covington Judge John Keller recently sentenced Father Patrick Wattigny, a longtime Catholic priest, to five years in prison for two counts of molesting juveniles. However, many believe that this sentence falls short of addressing the gravity of the crimes committed.

“It goes on and on and on and we fight, we lose out on where to turn, and then we give up,” said clergy abuse survivor, John Anderson, who accused Deacon George Brignac of abusing him when he was nine years old.

Brignac now heads up the Association of Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse and says the response to the sentence has been devastating.

“One of them in particular that stands out to me, says this was a slap in the face of the victims. One of them says this should’ve been a lifetime sentence,” said Anderson.

Comparisons are being drawn to other cases where individuals convicted of sexual offenses received more severe punishments. For instance, former New Orleans Saints player Darren Sharper received a 20-year sentence for drugging and raping multiple women, while former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain received a life sentence after being accused by five individuals of molesting them during their childhood.

“There’s no area of the law that has such great disparity and everybody gets worked up about it because everybody’s got a different opinion about what is just,” said Fox 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti.

While victims of clergy abuse express their disappointment with the light sentence handed to Wattigny, they also highlight the overall sluggishness in prosecuting credibly accused priests.

“Out of that 80+, guess how many have been prosecuted to this day? Maybe three only because survivors came forward,’’ said Anderson.

Furthermore, questions arise regarding the suitability of Catholic judges presiding over cases involving Catholic priests. Child US Advocacy, a group advocating for child protection, points out the potential conflict of interest in such situations, a concern echoed by Anderson.

“We need to look at the judges, even when we get to the bankruptcies, to see if they’re affiliated,” said Anderson.

“I think it’s a very slippery slope because everybody drops something in the basket every Sunday and we make other contributions. We have to draw the line somewhere and I don’t know that I think you’re in danger when you start pointing fingers at that type of thing,” said Raspanti.

Dozens of plaintiffs are now involved in a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of New Orleans over claims of sexual abuse. That suit has been dragging on for more than five years.