Someone Looking out for Priest
Anonymous Bond Offer Resurfaces

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
November 30, 1995

A persistent sub-plot in the rape charge against a Catholic priest surfaced again in a Houma courtroom Wednesday: the continuing effort to make bond for him by a benefactor who is wealthy, careful and anonymous.

"I swear I don't know who it is," said Jan Gustafson, the sister of Rev. Robert Melancon, charged with the aggravated rape of an altar boy in the early 1980s. "Robert doesn't know either. I'm sure of it."

With the 59-year-old priest sitting next to them in an orange prison jumpsuit, his hands cuffed to a chain around his waist, Melancon's attorneys asked a state judge to lower a $1 million bond.

But prosecutor Jason Lyons argued against it, pointing out that if the acts Melancon is accused of had occurred more recently, since the rewriting of state law, he would face the death penalty instead of life imprisonment, and would not be eligible for bond at all.

State Court Judge Johnny Walker asked both sides for written arguments and postponed a decision until next week.

During the hearing, however, defense attorney George Simno III produced evidence that someone - he did not say who - has offered $1 million in Treasury securities as bond to get Melancon released.

However, there is a condition that keeps Melancon in jail: The Terrebonne sheriff's determination to sell the securities for their cash value before releasing Melancon.

Gustafson told the court she has no idea who the benefactor is, although she understands it is the same person or institution that offered the court a $1 million cashier's check to win Melancon's release shortly after his arrest in late June.

That check was offered on the same condition, that it not be cashed. Melancon was temporarily freed, but he went back to jail in late September when the courts finally ruled that the Terrebonne Parish sheriff could follow his usual policy of cashing bond checks, prompting the donor to ask for its return.

The policy is still in effect with the new offer of Treasury securities.

The sheriff has said he will sell the securities, bank $1 million and return any surplus, Simno said. And that has prompted the donor to hesitate again.

Simno said he doesn't know who the donor is, either. He said he communicates through the donor's attorney, Ken Watkins of Houma.

Gustafson left court disappointed, saying she had hoped Walker would reduce Melancon's bond to about $300,000, which she said the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux had told her it would be willing to make.

Gustafson, an administrator at a Catholic retreat house in Metairie, sat with a group of Melancon's friends at the back of the court during the hearing. She blew him a kiss when he entered, in chains.

At this hearing there appeared to be no one representing friends or family of his accuser, a youth who was 17 when he came forward last spring.

Lyons told the court a grand jury is still investigating the youth's claim that he was repeatedly sodomized as a child in the rectory of Houma's Annunziata Parish in the early and mid-1980s.

He also referred to another accuser who privately charged Melancon and the diocese with sexual abuse and received a $30,000 settlement in 1993.

There remains the possibility that more criminal charges will be filed in the case, another reason to keep the bond at $1 million, Lyons said.

Lyons has subpoenaed extensive medical and psychiatric evaluations the church ordered on Melancon after both accusations.

The defense has indicated it will ask that the March trial be moved from Houma.

From the stand, Gustafson told the court Melancon is without significant assets except for a one-quarter interest in the family's $80,000 Metairie house.

While he was free, she and her brother mailed appeals for defense money to 600 to 800 friends, she said.

By return mail came donations - most of them small, but one for $10,000 - and offers of prayers and moral support, she said.

"You wouldn't believe the letters coming in, from people he helped over his 34 years in ministry," she said. "That's what's getting him through this, there's no doubt."

Melancon has remained in jail in Terrebonne since late September, leaving only over the Thanksgiving holiday to attend the funeral of his mother in New Orleans.

The family, including Melancon's two brothers, one a former Catholic priest, gathered for the ceremony. But given that Bishop Michael Jarrell has temporarily suspended Melancon from his priestly duties, it fell to a friend of the family, not Melancon, to celebrate his mother's funeral Mass.


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