Lawyer: Priest's Past Doesn't Mean He Raped

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
June 13, 1996

The attorney for a Catholic priest admitted to a jury Wednesday what the priest repeatedly denied to his bishop and parishioners: that the Rev. Robert Melancon had a years-long sexual relationship with a youth in Thibodaux. But Melancon, 60, nonetheless is innocent of raping an 8-year-old altar boy at his next parish in nearby Houma, the lawyer said.

The Thibodaux relationship, in the 1970s, makes Melancon an "easy target" for the current charge that he repeatedly raped a youth at Annunziata Parish in Houma between 1984 and 1989, John DiGuilio told a jury in opening statements at Melancon's aggravated rape trial.

"Father Melancon feels terrible about that," DiGuilio said of the relationship in Thibodaux. But he urged jurors to dismiss what prosecutors said would be a pattern in Melancon's behavior: an affinity for husky, shy boys he showered with gifts and favors, first in Thibodaux and then in Houma.

Melancon's lawyers also disclosed in opening arguments Wednesday that the Houma-Thibodaux diocese has settled a separate civil suit by Melancon's current accuser for $800,000.

The 19-year-old youth, who suffered a nervous breakdown and survived several suicide attempts last year, will describe sexual activity with Melancon in the rectory at Annunziata Parish, said Assistant District Attorney Jason Lyons.

In addition, the man who had the earlier relationship with Melancon in Thibodaux will testify to a pattern of gifts and personal attention that led up to and accompanied the sexual relations, Lyons said.

The evidence will include pictures of the two youths, "two little round-faced kids" so similar it is "astounding," Lyons said. One picture was taken in the bedroom of the rectory at St. Genevieve Parish in Thibodaux, Lyons said.

That relationship began when the youth was a teen-ager and continued until he was in his 20s, Lyons said. The man is now about 30 and married, he said.

That man told diocesan authorities of the relationship in 1993 and settled a civil claim for $30,000, according to court documents.

By that time, the relationship had been over for about eight years. The alleged relationship that is the focus of the current trial had been over for two years.

Melancon denied the 1993 charge to Bishop Michael Jarrell and was temporarily relieved of his pulpit for weeks of intensive evaluation at Ochsner Foundation Hospital, the diocese has said.

Doctors there cleared him to return to the ministry.

Diocesan officials have said they did not report the accusation to police because the man was an adult with his won lawyer, and thus free to do so himself.

Melancon has been on leave of absence from his current parish, Sacred Heart in Cut Off, since his arrest last summer.

Because of an absence of physical evidence in the current case, the trial will turn on jurors' estimate of the credibility of the accuser, both sides told the jury.

"When the defense is finished, you're going to see why rape victims are sometimes reluctant to testify," Lyons said. The defense has "one shot and one shot only, to make (the accuser) collapse in front of you.

"It's not going to be pretty."

But DiGuilio argued that the accuser, motivated by money, has falsely charged Melancon. He falsely accused another priest of molesting him, and now has "800,000 reasons" to stick to his story about Melancon, DiGuilio said.

He suggested that the youth went public with his story, four years after the alleged relationship ended, only because he was nearing his 1 8th birthday, presumably a deadline of some legal significance to the civil suit that DiGuilio left unexplained.

But Lyons noted that the Thibodaux man had nothing to gain by stepping forward to testify, having already settled his claim and rebuilt a life without notoriety.

In addition, Lyons said, Melancon's accuser did tell someone about his experience with Melancon some years earlier, in the summer of 1992. That was a deacon, a distant relative on the Annunziata staff.

However, the youth swore the deacon to secrecy. "I'd rather you hear from him," Lyons told the jury. "You'll see why. It was a very legitimate reason."

Lyons said Melancon built a relationship with his accuser, bringing him into his rectory bedroom after the youth assisted at weddings and funerals - non-Sunday events at which the youth would be present but the rectory would quickly fall quiet.

The youth will describe two rapes, beginning when he was 8. They followed at the rate of one, two or three times a month after that, Lyons said.

But DiGuilio said parish records will show that there were not many such opportunities at Annunziata, because it was not a favored place for weddings, among other reasons.

"His story doesn't hang together," DiGuilio said. "It's not that difficult to show."


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