NEW ORLEANS — The Archdiocese of New Orleans waited eight months to inform the lay administration at Slidell’s Pope John Paul II High that the campus chaplain was sending inappropriate text messages to a student, the school’s principal and Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in separate letters to parents Tuesday.
The chaplain, Pat Wattigny, resigned from the school over the summer as a result of the texts, and Aymond removed him from public ministry last week, saying that Wattigny had that same day admitted to abusing a minor in an unrelated case in 2013.
In a letter to school families, Pope John Paul II Principal Douglas Triche blasted the archdiocesan leadership, saying he had received no official word about Wattigny’s texts until Aymond called him Friday. That was the same day The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV reported on texts Wattigny had sent to at least one student in February and again in July.
“We all find this completely unacceptable and share in your disillusionment,” Triche said in the letter.
Triche’s letter is a rare example of a diocesan school administrator criticizing top church leadership. Triche has met with students during classes over the last week to assure them he knew nothing about the texts and would have taken action if he had been informed by the archdiocese.
The archdiocese has acknowledged learning of the communications when the mother of the texts’ recipient met with the church’s in-house lawyer in February.
Triche also wrote to families that the archdiocesan entity that oversees its schools, the Department of Catholic Education and Faith Formation, was likewise kept in the dark about the inappropriate texts. Triche wrote that he had heard rumors about a “major texting violation” and had asked the district leadership about it, but was told “that they had no report of this violation.”
Aymond’s letter Tuesday reiterated that none of the inappropriate texts contained “sexual references or innuendo.” He also noted that the student’s mother did not accuse Wattigny of abusing her son.
Nonetheless, Aymond said, the texts violated church policies requiring that communications with young people remain professional. Aymond said Wattigny temporarily stopped sending the texts after archdiocesan officials confronted him -- but he later resumed, so the church asked him to resign as chaplain.
Aymond’s letter said little about why the archdiocese’s brass didn’t immediately inform either Triche’s staff or the office running New Orleans’ Catholic schools other than to say the church treated Wattigny’s case “as a matter of priest personnel.” Asked Wednesday why the school’s leadership was left out of the loop, an archdiocesan spokesperson said that Wattigny’s texts “did not warrant a public announcement” because they didn’t involve abuse.
“I’m not shocked that Principal Triche would make the statement that he did not know,” said Bill Arata, an attorney who represents the family of the boy who turned over Wattigny’s texts. “I’m obviously disappointed, though.”
Arata is also the father of a student at Pope John Paul II. He blasted the archdiocese for trying to handle the complaints quietly.
“If you don’t communicate with the professionals in charge of educating our children, then our children are at risk,” he said.
Wattigny was allowed to continue serving on the school faculty from February through the end of the 2019-20 school year before the archdiocese asked him to resign. He remained in his other role as pastor of nearby St. Luke the Evangelist Church until last week.
Arata said Wattigny was sending texts to his client in the middle of the night, repeatedly asking when the boy would turn 18 and discussing private, in-person meetings.
The texts turned over in February and July cover 90 printed pages, Arata said. Both batches of texts were provided to the Archdiocese’s general counsel, Susan Zeringue, who met with the boy’s mother in February, the archdiocese confirmed.
Aymond’s letter defended the archdiocese’s handling of Wattigny, explaining how the church arranged for him to undergo “professional assessments” that led the priest to disclose an episode where he did abuse a child.
Aymond said the church has informed law enforcement about Wattigny’s purported admission. An archdiocesan spokesperson on Wednesday declined to identify which agency is looking into Wattigny, 53, saying it “could interfere with their investigation.”
While defending his actions, Aymond’s letter also said he understood Pope John Paul II community members who felt betrayed or angry in the wake of the revelations about Wattigny.
“These feelings are real, they are raw, and you have a right to them,” Aymond said. “For the pain this has caused you, we are truly sorry.”
The archbishop’s letter was co-signed by RaeNell Houston, the executive director of Catholic Education and Faith Formation, who is also referred to as the superintendent of Catholic schools.
Besides yanking him from his role as a priest, Aymond made Wattigny the 65th New Orleans-area clergyman added to an official list of those suspected of molesting children over the last several decades. It marked the first time the archdiocese had acknowledged abuse that allegedly took place after 2002, when U.S. bishops approved extensive measures meant to shield children from predator priests.
The archdiocese ordained Wattigny in 1994. He spent the first six years of his career at St. Peter Parish in Covington, Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner.
He became pastor at St. Benilde and chaplain of Archbishop Rummel -- both in Metairie -- in 2000 and held those roles for 13 years. He left Rummel and St. Benilde in 2013, the same year as the alleged abuse, and spent the next seven years at Pope John Paul II and St. Luke. The archdiocese has said Wattigny’s 2013 transfer was not prompted by any abuse.
Wattigny served as president of Pope John Paul II for the 2017-18 academic school year, although the archdiocese ultimately eliminated his post while realigning the administration.