Disgraced New Orleans deacon continued as lay minister despite abuse claims; archbishop 'embarrassed'
By Jim Mustian
New Orleans Advocate
July 07, 2018
|George F. Brignac served as a lay lector at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church despite being removed from the Catholic ministry in 1988 amid a host of sexual abuse allegations.|
Last weekend, a parishioner pulled up to St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church but drove away before walking into the sanctuary.
The woman decided not to attend Mass, she said, because she could no longer stomach the sight of George F. Brignac, a defrocked deacon who as recently as last month served as a lector at the Metairie church — reading Scripture and announcements — despite years of sexual abuse allegations that prompted his removal from the ministry in 1988.
Brignac, 83, remained in this public role even after the Archdiocese of New Orleans this spring quietly paid more than $500,000 to settle claims that he repeatedly raped an 8-year-old altar boy at Holy Rosary School more than three decades ago.
At least a half-dozen other boys accused Brignac of molestation throughout his tenure as a Catholic school teacher — allegations that fell on deaf ears within a church that stubbornly supported him through three police investigations.
The archdiocese did not even remove Brignac from the classroom after he stood trial in 1978 in Jefferson Parish, and newly released New Orleans police records show the church also dragged its heels two years later during a previously undisclosed criminal probe that similarly resulted in Brignac's arrest.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond insisted recently that Brignac's fall from grace had been "very public" and, while not covered by the media, was widely known among church leaders in the 1980s. But it has become increasingly clear that some people didn't get the memo — or that his defrocking was blatantly disregarded.
Just last month, Brignac stood at a Mass and performed a liturgical ministry in the presence of children, less than three miles from one of the schools where some of his alleged crimes occurred.
"I was outraged that he was still allowed to serve in any capacity in the church," the St. Mary Magdalen parishioner said, speaking on the condition that her name not be printed. "This is a betrayal. They are not protecting the flock — or our kids."
An archdiocese spokeswoman, Sarah McDonald, said its leaders were not made aware of Brignac's role at St. Mary Magdalen until Aymond distributed a letter last month alerting parishioners of the latest sexual abuse allegations against Brignac — a notification the church did not make until two days after The New Orleans Advocate reported on the related six-figure settlement. The story was published about six weeks after the settlement.
The priest who gave Brignac permission to serve as a lector "was wrong to do so," McDonald added, noting that clergy removed from ordained ministry are not allowed to serve as lay ministers in the church. She did not identify which church official ran afoul of archdiocese policy.
"I was utterly surprised and embarrassed when I found out that, several years ago, a priest had given Mr. Brignac permission to serve in this capacity," Aymond said in a lengthy statement to The Advocate. "That was an unfortunate decision, which has caused scandal. I deeply regret this."
The oversight has raised even more questions about the archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse claims. In many previous cases, the church has not even identified former clergy it deemed to be the subject of "credible" allegations of abuse, making it difficult to determine whether other alleged predators like Brignac have continued ministering in the church in other capacities after being stripped of their Roman collars.
"One of the questions that shadows each one of these cases is what, in fact, happens to a priest or deacon when he is 'removed,' " said Jason Berry, a New Orleans-based investigative reporter and author who has written extensively about the Catholic church's sex abuse scandals. "What is strange about Brignac going to St. Mary Magdalen is that, if the archdiocese dismissed him, why would a pastor allow him to get up and read the Bible?"
In a telephone interview last week, Brignac said the current priest, Father Chris DeLerno, and at least one of DeLerno's predecessors at St. Mary Magdalen had been aware of his 1988 defrocking when they allowed him to serve as a lector. He said he had served in that role at least once a month for the past two years after moving to the neighborhood. DeLerno did not return a call seeking comment.
"They asked me if I could read at the Mass — I didn't do anything other than that," Brignac said. "I'm a Catholic, and I've been close to the church all my life. God is paramount in my life, and everything I've done is to help people get closer to God."
Brignac did not deny touching young boys — "I would not have gone into teaching if I were not attracted to children" — but insisted he never did it "for immoral purposes." He said a psychologist who treated him years ago determined that he was "asexual."
"Any actions of intimacy between my students and me — and family and me — have no sexual motive," Brignac said during a 20-minute interview. "I'm not going to deny that I have touched a child."
'Methods of intimidating'
Brignac's role at St. Mary Magdalen is perhaps most appalling to the parents who begged the archdiocese for years to take action against him. Some went to the police as a last resort after the church showed no interest in holding Brignac accountable.
"There were methods of intimidating not only the children but the parents as well," said one mother, whose son was among four boys who accused Brignac of molestation at St. Matthew the Apostle, in River Ridge, in the late 1970s. "We were unaware of terms like 'pedophilia' in those days. We just knew we didn't want him around our children."
In those years, parents who objected to the administration's handling of an abuse claim were encouraged to put their child in a different school.
"We went to the principal, the parish priest, the psychiatrist, the superintendent, and felt from all of them that they didn’t seem to think this was a problem," the mother said. "There was a feeling that our children might be shipped down the highway, so to speak."
Church officials acknowledged receiving molestation claims against Brignac as early as 1977, a year after he was ordained as a deacon, according to newly released police records. The first known allegations were almost identical to those raised years later by other prepubescent boys in New Orleans.
At St. Matthew, Brignac selected certain students to stay after tutoring classes, sat them on his lap, kissed them on the cheek and rubbed their penises through their clothing, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office report. One 12-year-old told deputies he had "seen Mr. Brignac rub more than one boy on their 'weenies.' "
Brignac admitted to some of this misconduct in conversations with Father John A. Bendix, a school official, and Sister Agnes Laborde, St. Matthew's principal at the time, who deemed the actions a "weak moment" on the teacher's part, the Sheriff's Office report says. Brignac promised Bendix and Laborde "it would never happen again," the report says. Bendix and Laborde have both since died.
The mother who spoke with The Advocate said she had asked that Brignac be suspended and at least undergo a psychiatric evaluation. But Bendix told her that "he was Mr. Brignac's doctor and no one else was needed," the Sheriff's Office report says.
Brignac finally was evaluated by a doctor at Ochsner Foundation Hospital who "did not find Mr. Brignac any threat to children." Based on that assessment, the superintendent of Catholic schools wrote a letter to Bendix recommending the school maintain Brignac's contract.
After months of inaction by the archdiocese, deputies in 1977 walked into St. Matthew one morning at 7:15 a.m. and placed Brignac in handcuffs.
The prosecution relied primarily on the testimony of the young boys. Brignac's defense attorney dismissed their accounts as a conspiracy intended to exploit Brignac's self-enforced celibacy.
The attorney, Arthur Kingsmill, contended the youths were "both wise enough to use it and to couple it with our present preoccupation with the concept that any physical contact with a youngster is sexually motivated and is therefore a molestation."
In a later letter reflecting on the case, Kingsmill said the allegations had "crucified a man who loves children in the purest of ways."
Brignac was acquitted at a bench trial in 1978 on three counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile. He had a long list of character witnesses ready to call but did not need them in order to persuade 24th Judicial District Judge Fred Bowes that he was not guilty of the charges.
The mother who spoke with The Advocate questioned Bowes' affiliation with Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's fundraising arm, and said she believed the verdict had been "preordained."
"I don't know of any other trials in which you have clergy come into the courtroom in complete regalia and go into the judge's chambers," she said.
Probed by a predator
By 1980, Brignac had moved to Holy Rosary School, where he taught and co-directed the altar boy program at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. Brignac lived across Esplanade Avenue from the school, and it was during this time that he befriended — and allegedly began raping — an 8-year-old altar boy. That is the claim the archdiocese recently deemed to be "credible," agreeing to pay more than $500,000 to the victim.
At least one other claim during that time drew the attention of law enforcement. On June 13, 1980, a young mother told New Orleans police that her 11-year-old son had come home from summer school claiming Brignac had "played with his thing."
The boy said his teacher pulled up his shirt and tickled him on the chest on the first day of summer school. On the second day, during the lunch break, he said Brignac reached into his pants and began playing with his penis. Brignac asked the boy to come to his home, but the child refused.
That investigation was handled by Stanley C. Burkhardt, a New Orleans police detective who himself was later exposed as a child predator, earning him a stint at a federal prison in North Carolina that treats "sexually dangerous persons." Burkhardt was arrested in 1987 as part of a sting operation in which he mailed explicit images of young boys around the country. He also pleaded guilty to molesting a 9-year-old family member.
But Burkhardt's legal troubles had yet to materialize in 1980, and he was assigned to look into Brignac. He went to Holy Rosary to confront the deacon, who denied the allegations but acknowledged that "he is an emotional and affectionate type of person, and that he often hugs the young boys and kisses them on the head," according to a police report.
Brignac was booked with indecent behavior with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile, his second arrest on molestation counts. It's not clear why the allegations were not prosecuted, and a District Attorney's Office spokesman said the case is too old for officials to determine its disposition.
In his report, Burkhardt said the archdiocese gave him the runaround in providing a list of boys taught by Brignac. The detective eventually obtained the list through other means and wrote that he determined through interviews that "no sexual contact has ever occurred" between Brignac and his other students.
'Sins of the past'
The archdiocese did not remove Brignac from the ministry until 1988, after he was accused of fondling a 7-year-old boy following a Christmas party at Our Lady of the Rosary. Brignac had told the boy he loved him and had given the child a Christmas card containing $5.
The molestation allegedly happened in the kitchen while the other children were at Mass. By this time, Brignac was still teaching but had been transferred to Cabrini High School, an all-girls school next door to Our Lady of the Rosary on Esplanade Avenue.
Orleans Parish prosecutors sought to introduce the prior allegations of abuse as part of the 1988 case, saying there was a clear pattern in Brignac's predation. "These are signature crimes," they wrote in court filings.
But the state dismissed the charges six months after they were filed, saying the victim's parents "refused to go forward."
By this point, however, then-Archbishop Philip Hannan had finally decided to remove Brignac from the ministry, though he did not list a reason for the action in archdiocese records.
Aymond, the current archbishop, apologized last week to "all those who made allegations against Mr. Brignac" and acknowledged what he called "the sins of the past."
"Looking back, it is impossible for me to know what or what not was in the heart or the mind of those who made the decisions," Aymond said, referring to his predecessors. "Let us not forget that in the past, sexual abuse was dealt with differently in homes, families and clubs. This is not an excuse, but we are totally committed to the process we now embrace to keep children safe in our parishes, schools and ministries."
The potential for new criminal charges against Brignac has emerged in recent weeks. Roger Stetter, an attorney who now represents five alleged victims of Brignac, plans to meet with New Orleans police this week. Some of the allegations may be too old to prosecute, but there is no statute of limitations in Louisiana for child rape.
"This is really extraordinary," Stetter said. "I expect that even more victims are going to come forward."
For his part, Brignac said he wishes the alleged victims — and the church — would just "let this die." He said the mounting allegations are nothing more than a "misinterpretation of my conduct."
He said the recent news coverage has "ruined" his life and made him afraid to answer the door or venture outside.
"I can't control the world today," Brignac said. "These kind of things were not even thought of 25 years ago. They started all that stuff about same-sex marriages, homosexual marriages and all that kind of stupidity. Now it's coming to attacking the morals of people who are working with young people."