NEW ORLEANS — A disgraced Roman Catholic deacon who was awaiting trial on allegations of raping a child in the 1980s died Monday, according to his attorney.
While George Brignac had been free since posting a $1 million bail in December, he never made it home, attorney Martin Regan said Tuesday.
While briefly locked up in the Orleans Justice Center as his bail was being processed in mid-December, Brignac broke a vertebrae when he fell inside the lock-up. He never recovered, Regan said, bouncing between hospital stays and a rehabilitation home.
“I expected him to get an ankle bracelet and come home like most inmates, but it never happened,” Regan said. “My client was anxious to go to trial. Except for his injuries, he’d probably still be walking around.”
Brignac, 85, had been transferred to Touro Infirmary from the Uptown nursing home Maison Orleans on Sunday before he died less than 24 hours later, attorney Martin Regan said Tuesday.
Regan said he did not have details on a cause of death for his client and was unsure whether an autopsy would be conducted.
Brignac pleaded not guilty on Dec. 13 to a charge of first-degree rape, which carries a mandatory life sentence. He was the only clergyman to have been charged after being included on a Nov. 2, 2018, list that the Archdiocese New Orleans released of priests and deacons who had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.
Brignac’s alleged victim, contacted by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, expressed strong emotions over the news, not just directed at Brignac, but also the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“Today the world is rid of a monster that preyed on many innocent children,” wrote the victim, who requested anonymity. “He used the façade of the Catholic Church and the influence of the New Orleans Archdiocese to hide his crimes. Unfortunately, he did not stay alive long enough to stand trial for the crimes that he committed. As a result, this will deter the general public from knowing the truth about this man and how the Archdiocese used their influence to protect him.”
Local survivors in other cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy had been following the case closely. Kevin Bourgeois, a survivor and local leader of the support network SNAP, Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, said the community was “deflated” by the news of Brignac’s death.
“They feel like they were robbed and angry that they didn't get to face him in court,” Bourgeois said. “I think the only closure it gives is to Greg Aymond and to the hierarchy of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.”
The Archdiocese offered its own statement after learning of Brignac’s death.
“Most importantly our prayers go out to victims and survivors of abuse,” the Archdiocese wrote in an email. “We are committed to doing our best to ensure that children are protected and this type of abuse does not happen in the future.”
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro expressed disappointment that Brignac passed away before going to trial, which was delayed in part because of the court closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our staff put hundreds of hours into this case to secure the grand jury indictment of Mr. Brignac last December and in preparation for trial,” Cannizzaro wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic had other plans for court schedules and we ran out of time. Mr. Brignac escaped judgment in this world, but I have to believe it will be rendered by the ultimate judge for his crimes against defenseless children.”
The case for which Brignac was awaiting trial was only the latest in which he had been accused of molesting a minor. He was charged in 1977 with molesting boys at a school where he taught but was acquitted.
Despite those charges, Brignac began working at another school. He was again arrested on sexual abuse allegations in 1980 and 1988, but prosecutors declined to press charges both times.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans said Brignac had been removed from public ministry after the second of those arrests, but he had continued to read at Masses at St. Mary Magdalene as recently as the summer of 2018.
Later that year, an alleged victim of Brignac filed a civil lawsuit against him and the archdiocese which turned up emails between the local church and the New Orleans Saints football team. Saints executives said they were providing the church public relations advice surrounding the release of the credibly accused roster.
Regan said his client was barely able to walk due to his injury and remained bedridden for most of his final months. Once the pandemic lockdown was ordered, Brignac remained isolated at Maison Orleans, unable to even meet with Regan to prepare a defense. In his final days, Regan said Brignac lost his ability to speak.
“The injury caused him great depression and the coronavirus kept him from seeing his friends and blocked him from seeing his attorney,” Regan said.
Brignac died a little more than two months after the death of his twin brother, longtime Catholic priest Horace L. "H.L." Brignac. H.L. Brignac died on April 16, also at the age of 85.