Bishop Faces an Ugly Job Head-On

The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
January 25, 1997

Lafayette's current Catholic bishop appears determined not to repeat the shameful mistakes that turned a child molestation case into a national cause a decade ago.

The day after a priest was arrested on charges of indecent behavior with a 14-year-old juvenile last week, Bishop Edward O'Donnell held a news conference to explain what church officials knew about the case.

He said the accused priest was staying in a private residence, suspended from all religious duties, and that the family of the alleged victim was offered a meeting with the bishop and counseling financed by the diocese.

On Sunday he also held a question-and-answer session with 300 parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rayne, where the accused priest, 29-year-old Rev. Mark Richard, was assistant pastor.

O'Donnell also pledged full cooperation with government authorities as they investigate a case that, from what is publicly known, appears largely circumstantial.

The bishop's actions might seem obvious. And they are almost exactly what was requested of church officials in the 1980s, when child molestation accusations began to mount against Gilbert Gauthe, then a priest in New Iberia.

But, in the Gauthe case, under a different bishop, church officials tried to use the church's long authoritarian tradition to stymie the legitimate interests of the government, the concerned and confused faithful and, most shamefully, the young victims.

As awful as that case was - Gauthe eventually pleaded guilty to sexually terrorizing 11 altar boys, some for years - its effects were aggravated by the stonewalling. The case cost the Catholic church millions in civil settlements to 13 victims' families, and it inspired a made-for-TV movie.

But the Gauthe case, and subsequent child molestation cases involving Catholic priests elsewhere, prompted a lot of soul-searching within the church.

One result was new policies that, among other things, require anyone with knowledge of such abuse (except for what a priest might hear in confession) to report it immediately and fully cooperate with government as well as church authorities.

O'Donnell appears to have taken steps even further than the policies require. He responded quickly, offered to aid the possible victim in any way, removed the accused from contact with parishioners, met with the faithful and stressed the legitimacy of the government's role in what was once considered something of an internal affair.

Indeed, this is first and foremost a case of a Louisiana adult accused of violating a law against indecent conduct with a child.

The religious implications, although vital to many people, should not be a factor in the criminal case. It's a government matter.

That means that, as O'Donnell has pointed out, Richard is considered innocent unless declared otherwise in a government court.

So far all that's publicly known is that deputies reportedly found Richard and a 14-year-old boy alone in car on a dead-end street, both shoeless and their clothes disheveled.

O'Donnell says the priest, as well as the boy through his mother, deny anything improper happened.

Whatever the outcome of the case, O'Donnell's initial response has set a high standard in Louisiana for handling an issue that, church officials now realize, no longer can be swept under the rug.


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