Ex-Louisiana deacon whose son was sexually abused by a priest is excommunicated from church

The Guardian [London, England]

March 22, 2024

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Bishop J Douglas Deshotel issued the order after Scott Peyton had resigned from his post, but the abusive priest was not censured

Louisiana man who resigned as a Roman Catholic deacon after a priest at whose side he served sexually molested his son has been excommunicated from the church by his local diocese, a remarkably harsh punishment that his child’s abuser does not appear to have faced.

Scott Peyton’s excommunication from the Catholic church at the hands of bishop J Douglas Deshotel comes as the latter’s Lafayette diocese has asked Louisiana’s supreme court to strike down a law that retroactively and temporarily eliminated filing deadlines for lawsuits demanding damages for childhood sexual abuse from years ago.

The law which lawyers for the Lafayette diocese targeted wasn’t exclusively for clergy abuse victims, but it prompted many new cases of that nature against Louisiana’s Catholic institutions and clerics who worked for them.

Peyton called Deshotel’s actions against him “very malicious”, adding that he has seen no indication the diocese ever sought to excommunicate any of the more than 40 priests and deacons whom it has included on the organization’s list of credibly accused child molesters. Among those on that roster is Gilbert Gauthe, who pleaded guilty to abusing numerous boys before being sent to prison in the mid-1980s in a case that is widely considered to be “patient zero” of the US Catholic church’s ongoing clerical molestation scandal.

“It’s totally unnecessary,” Peyton said of his excommunication, which was first reported by the Lafayette news outlet KADN. “And I’m afraid it will make abuse victims and their families afraid to come out.”

Peyton said he was ordained into the diocese of Lafayette – about 135 miles (217 km) west of New Orleans – as a deacon in 2012. Deacons are similar to priests, though they can become clergymen despite being married.

His faith was challenged substantially in 2018, when a priest with whom he ministered at St Peter’s church in Morrow, Louisiana, confessed to molesting Peyton’s teenage son, Oliver, and was arrested by law enforcement investigators.

Michael Guidry later pleaded guilty to abusing Oliver Peyton, who was an altar boy. And after Guidry’s church honored him with a goodbye luncheon for which the diocese was forced to apologize, he received a seven-year prison sentence.

Then in 2021, Scott said he, his wife, Letitia, and Oliver – with the help of attorney Kristi Schubert – secured a $350,000 settlement from the diocese of Lafayette to settle a civil lawsuit against the church out of court.

The Peytons, meanwhile, have become advocates of the law that opened a temporary window for people to pursue civil damages in connection with sexual abuse no matter how long ago it was. Letitia testified in favor of the law before Louisiana’s state legislature. And she and her husband founded the TentMakers non-profit organization to support survivors of Catholic clergy sex abuse.

Despite their son’s ordeal and their advocacy, the Peytons saw attorneys of their diocese later go to Louisiana’s supreme court and argue that the justices should declare the “lookback window” law unconstitutional.

Scott ultimately discerned in December that he was no longer a good fit to serve as a deacon in the diocese and quit, saying he intended his resignation to be “a conscientious objection to the way the church has handled cases of sexual abuse”.

“[This] has deeply shaken my faith and trust in the institution to which I have dedicated a significant portion of my life,” Peyton said in his resignation email to Deshotel, which was shared with the Guardian. “This decision is not a rejection of my faith in God or my commitment to living a life guided by Christian principles. Instead, it reflects … a desire to distance myself from an institution that, currently, falls short of the values it professes.”

Deshotel replied quickly, seeming to aim for a compassionate tone.

“I was sad to receive your email deciding to leave the church and cease to exercise your vocation as a deacon,” Deshotel said. “I will remember you in my prayers and masses that you be open to the gift of faith in the Catholic church founded by Jesus Christ and built on the Apostles. Sacramentally you are a deacon though you choose not to exercise your ministry.”

However, in a separate written decree on 13 March, Deshotel’s tone shifted markedly. Peyton had been excommunicated, effective immediately, the bishop wrote.

Excommunication for pious Catholics is as severe a censure as there is, prohibiting those who are so punished from receiving certain sacraments as a way to essentially shock them into rethinking their sinful behavior before death makes it too late to save their souls from damnation. Among the most renowned figures to be excommunicated are Henry VIII (over a divorce and remarriage), Napoleon Bonaparte (for annexing the Papal States within Italy to France) and Martin Luther (after starting the Reformation).

“I am aware that your family has suffered a trauma but the answer does not lie in leaving the Most Holy Eucharist,” Deshotel wrote in his excommunication decree. “We are not Catholics because the church on Earth is perfect but because the Lord has entrusted us to a mystery greater than ourselves, which He has established as the means to our salvation.

“The censures of the church are intended to be medicinal, perhaps as much for those who impose them as for those who are subject to them. It is with this objective that I mournfully must declare them.”

Peyton said Deshotel’s words left him gobsmacked. The day before his excommunication, despite having resigned, one of the churches in the Lafayette diocese recognized Peyton as the region’s “deacon of the day” in a Facebook post that displayed a photo of him smiling. Now he wasn’t even really a Catholic any more in the eyes of his bishop.

“That’s not Christ-like,” Peyton said. “That’s … a fancy way of the bishop … telling me to go to hell.”

A Lafayette diocese spokesperson did not respond to a request for additional comment about Peyton’s excommunication or to a question about whether Guidry had been similarly punished.