There’s been a lot of news lately about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups in Louisiana, especially in the New Orleans Archdiocese. Let’s start with the encouraging news:
Two predator priests are going to prison for their crimes:
- Fr. Stephen Sauer, “who preyed on 17 men who were intoxicated or needed help, drugging and photographing them — and sexually assaulting at least a dozen of them — pleaded guilty on Friday to 13 counts of sexual battery, nine counts of third-degree rape, 17 counts of video voyeurism and 16 misdemeanor charges of drug possession,” according to the New York Times.
- Fr. Patrick Wattigny, a former Catholic priest in Louisiana, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to two state criminal charges of juvenile molestation.
There’s more good news:
The clerics are relatively young (Wattigny is 55, and Sauer is 61). This means that for some number of years when they’re relatively healthy and mobile and a threat to children, they will be behind bars. And this means that even if they manage to get out of jail early, having been deemed guilty in criminal court, they’ll find it much harder to fly ‘under the radar’ and win the trust of families and get access to their kids.
It’s also encouraging that one of the victims is relatively young. Admittedly, it may seem odd to say that the age of Fr. Wattigny’s victim is also ‘good news.’ But the man who’s responsible for this priest going to jail is now 36 years old. The best research available shows that most survivors of child sexual abuse never disclose their horror to anyone. But of those who do, on average, they are around 52 years old at the time.
So while this brave victim has obviously suffered tremendously, by speaking up now, he has essentially cut short by a few years the decades of silence, shame, and self-blame that afflict more abuse survivors. And we can hope (though this may be a stretch) that his coming forward sooner is a sign that gradually, more and more people who are assaulted in childhood recognize the violation and are able to take action on it a bit earlier than they have in the past.
Finally, we’re pleased to see that survivors and their advocates are publicly criticizing the lenient sentence doled out to Fr. Wattigny. (After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to five years in prison.) We applaud these victims and their supporters for speaking up for justice and for kids. We at Horowitz Law share their belief that every day a child molester is behind bars is a day when children are safer. But sadly, that’s where the good news ends.
Among the troubling news:
1- A New Orleans judge has sanctioned clergy sex abuse victim’s attorney $400,000. His alleged wrongdoing? He “alerted a local Catholic high school that a priest who worked there once admitted to fondling and kissing a teen girl he met at another church institution,” and by so doing, he reportedly violated a confidentiality order. The sanction is, of course, being appealed.)
2- “An eighth federal judge in New Orleans may withdraw from handling litigation involving the local Roman Catholic archdiocese as ties between the city’s legal elite and the church remain deep as ever,” reports The Guardian. One could argue that it’s good when judges acknowledge an actual or perceived conflict of interest. But one could also argue that when there is apparently such a high percentage of judges in one jurisdiction that belong to one faith group, that’s likely to prove problematic. (The case involves self-confessed serial predator priest Lawrence Hecker.).
It’s important, most agree that the public has confidence that the judiciary is able to weigh all kinds of cases without bias. That’s the real issue here: whether citizens believe their judges are able to be impartial. In a similar vein, we recently commented on this blog about the controversy surrounding top officials with the New Orleans Saints football team. In civil litigation, we noted, team executives are “accused of “helping New Orleans Archdiocesan officials decide which accused child molesting clerics to public divulge. They’re also accused of doing other public relations work (a.k.a. ‘spin’) on the area’s Catholic sexual abuse crisis, allegedly joining ‘in the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.”
As we’ve said often, when abuse reports surface, one can either take steps to make it easier or tougher for victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers to disclose what they know or suspect about abuse. When powerful individuals and institutions cooperate in the face of abuse reports, that makes it TOUGHER for victims to step forward. It increases the chances victims will feel “It’s no use speaking up. The bad guys are way more powerful and well-connected than I am. There’s no chance I’ll be believed.” Back to Fr. Wattigny, though, for a second. One final fact about him should ring alarm bells, especially for those Catholics whose bishops have convinced that the abuse and cover-up crisis is largely behind us. This priest was ousted in 2020. Obviously, that’s not ancient history. So while Louisiana parents may breathe a sigh of relief that these two predators are behind bars, they shouldn’t let their guard down too much because other child molesters are still in parishes.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.