Priest Is Guilty of Raping Boy
Trial Showed Pattern of Abuse by Melancon

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
June 19, 1996

A jury Tuesday convicted a senior Catholic priest of molesting an altar boy who became, in a prosecutor's words, the priest's "own personal sex toy" for five years.

The jury of seven men and five women took less than two hours to convict the Rev. Robert Melancon of aggravated rape.

Minutes later, Terrebonne Parish sheriff's deputies drove a handcuffed Melancon to jail, to the cheers of dozens of spectators who packed the trial for 4 1/2 days.

"That's one more pedophile off the streets," said Harriet Cheramie, a former parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish of Cut Off, who once petitioned Bishop Michael Jarrell for Melancon's removal after his transfer there in 1991.

State District Judge Johnny Walker scheduled sentencing for August. Melancon, 60, faces mandatory life in prison.

Melancon's attorneys, who said the trial should never have been held in the inflamed atmosphere around Houma, said they will appeal.

The verdict came as the altar boy, now 19 and no longer a member of any church, sat in the rear of the courtroom, surrounded by family members.

They hugged as the verdict was announced.

After Melancon was led away, his sister, brother and a niece who stood by him during the trial conferred somberly with his attorneys. Melancon's sister, Jan Gustafson of Metairie, dabbed at tears.

"We're so disappointed," she said.

In his closing argument late Tuesday afternoon, Assistant District Attorney Mark Rhodes told jurors that Melancon is less a Catholic priest than "a rapist, pure and simple."

"I refuse to call that man father," he said. "Don't think for a moment he's not a monster, because he is," Rhodes said.

The verdict closed 4 1/2 days of testimony that proved a nightmare for the Catholic Church in Houma.

It included:

Melancon's admission that he was an active, though secret, pedophile who involved a 12-year-old boy in a sexual relationship while serving as pastor of St. Genevieve Parish in Thibodaux in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Another church official's disclosure from the witness stand that he was molested by another Houma area priest in the early 1980s, but found no justice at the hands of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese when he complained to former Bishop Warren Boudreaux.

And it included the acknowledgment by Monsignor Albert Bergeron, the diocese's former chancellor and a lifelong friend of Melancon's, that Bergeron once maintained a cache of pornographic movies at St. Bridget's rectory in nearby Schriever.

Prosecutors described Melancon as a pedophile who moved from St. Genevieve in Thibodaux to Annunziata Parish in Houma in 1985 and quickly singled out an 8-year-old for special attention and altar boy training, then frequent sex in the Annunziata rectory.

The relationship - even the appearance of the shy, overweight altar boy - was strikingly similar to Melancon's courtship of the 12-year-old in Thibodaux, Rhodes said.

Melancon, who never took the stand, admitted the truth of the Thibodaux relationship early in the trial.

"It was illegal, it was immoral, it was not right," defense attorney John DiGuilio acknowledged in his closing argument. But he insisted that the Annunziata altar boy's allegations were too overblown to be credible.

Melancon's sexual activity with the boy in Thibodaux is too old to be prosecuted in court.

The Houma youth, who turned 19 during the trial, said Melancon sodomized him once or twice a month from about mid-1986, when he was 8, to 1991, when Melancon left to become pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off. He has been suspended from the post since his arrest last June 28.

Melancon's attorneys suggested that the youth "targeted" Melancon in 1995 for a false accusation. The altar boy knew that two years earlier Melancon and the diocese paid $30,000 to settle out of court a sexual misconduct claim brought by the man he molested as a youth in Thibodaux.

The altar boy said the sex usually occurred after weddings, funerals and baptisms. But DiGuilio argued that there were too few such occurrences to make the charge credible after subtracting daytime school-year funerals the youth could not attend, certain weddings that did not require altar boys, and baptisms, which didn't involve altar boys at Annunziata, several parish staffers said.

DiGuilio suggested instead that the altar boy and his family were pressing their charge to justify an $800,000 civil settlement they signed with the diocese the night before the trial started last week.

And there may be another reason, DiGuilio suggested. The youth, who a year ago acknowledged to his mother that he is gay, may "be looking for an excuse to explain to his parents why he is the way he is."

DiGuilio noted that the youth said he became an altar boy shortly before he turned 8 in 1985, and that acts of sodomy in the Annunziata rectory began within a year.

But parish records indicated the youth did not become an altar boy until a year and a half later, he told the jury in his closing argument.

Rhodes repeatedly stressed the story of the Thibodaux man, now 34, who testified to his sexual relationship with Melancon beginning even before the altar boy's birth.

That man had no economic motive and risked only humiliation by coming forward with his story about Melancon, Rhodes said.


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