NEW ORLEANS — It was 1953, and George Brignac was fresh out of high school when he joined the regional chapter of the Christian Brothers.
He spent seven years with the Catholic order, which founded four well-known local schools: St. Paul’s in Covington, De La Salle and Christian Brothers in New Orleans, and Archbishop Rummel in Metairie. But, by 1960, the order had expelled him.
Brignac told some people it was for “reasons of health.” Another time, his superior in the order said Brignac found “obedience difficult.”
Years later, his twin, a priest named Horace L. “H.L.” Brignac, revealed the truth in a statement to police: George Brignac had been “too friendly with boys.”
Archbishop Phillip Hannan either didn’t know that or didn’t care when, in 1976, he accepted George Brignac into the clergy as a deacon. In the Catholic church, deacons rank below priests but are still considered members of the clergy.
An archdiocesan bureaucrat, the Rev. Edward Boudreaux, had judged Brignac “an excellent candidate” for the diaconate, one “most faithful to his preparation” for the role.
The role he would play was monster, the Orleans Parish district attorney’s recently released file on Brignac makes painfully clear.
The file contains more than 10,000 pages of internal archdiocesan memos, legal communications between the church’s and victims’ lawyers, and police reports, all gathered by prosecutors as they prepared to bring Brignac to trial. They believe that, by the time of his 1976 ordination, he had already molested at least 11 children.
He would go on to terrorize at least 15 more, inflicting abuse that ranged from fondling to violent anal rape -- acts that led to three arrests and an acquittal -- before the church in 1988 removed him from ministry. And those are just the known cases.
Brignac’s involvement with the church should inarguably have ended there. But it didn’t -- and he didn’t even have to leave town to start anew. A local Catholic community service group claiming it had no idea of Brignac’s past welcomed him as a volunteer, again putting him in a position of trust with access to children. That mistake was later compounded. Though he knew Brignac was a child molester, the pastor of a Metairie church in 2009 invited the fallen deacon to begin reading Scripture as a lector at Masses, an arrangement that wouldn’t end until it was exposed in the newspaper nine years later.
Once news reports exposed the church’s continued association with Brignac, the archdiocese paid upwards of $3 million in the span of a year to more than a dozen victims who came forward with claims against Brignac. New Orleans police in September 2019 arrested him a fourth time, in connection with child rape allegations from his time as a deacon, and then District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office charged him with first-degree rape, though he died this summer awaiting trial.
It is the file in that case that recently became public, because of Brignac’s death. The arc traced by Brignac, one of the most incorrigible pedophiles to work in the New Orleans clergy, makes plain why the clerical abuse crisis has been so searing -- and so enduring.
The documents show that long before the Catholic Church faced a painful reckoning in 2002 over its handling of abusive priests, Brignac grievously harmed dozens of local children. And despite being caught, repeatedly, the only real price he paid was expulsion from the clergy -- a penalty he believed, until his death, was unfair to him.
The case file also shows how, despite promises to do better, the church gave in to its historic tendency toward secrecy.
Catholic officials never exposed Brignac as the chronic abuser they knew he was, allowing him to worm his way back into a place of trust -- something that would never have happened had the church been more forthcoming. Their reasons for keeping his crimes hidden are easy enough to understand: Acknowledging he was a serial predator would unleash a tsunami of new, expensive claims from victims. And, more broadly, they would likely contribute to a broader loss of trust from those who deplore the worldwide church’s handling of clerical molesters.
Yet in the long run, the church’s failures with Brignac likely exacerbated the inevitable toll. Now, in addition to the financial and emotional fallout from Brignac’s crimes, church officials must deal with anger over their failure to live up to the promises they and Catholic leaders all over the world made in 2002. Among those promises: that the church would take extreme measures to protect children; to always tell the truth; to demonstrate complete transparency.
But a program that proffered those reforms to rebuild trust knowingly let Brignac slip back into the orbit of the church -- and children. Around the time he was invited to read at Mass, Brignac enrolled in the archdiocese’s “safe environment” program, which trains church personnel to prevent child molestation and, should that fail, report it.
Brignac didn’t hide his sordid past. He wrote that he had been arrested, fired from at least one job, and even prosecuted for child abuse. Roughly two decades earlier, in a letter to New Orleans’ then-Archbishop Phillip Hannan, Brignac had admitted, “I realize that for the good of the church, and for my own personal good, I must not be allowed to be put in a position of authority or supervision of or work with young boys in the future.”
Yet Brignac was allowed to complete the training, just two months into Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s tenure. And a priest whom Brignac knew soon extended an invitation to serve as a Mass lector at St. Mary Magdalen.
The priest who vouched for Brignac in writing, the Rev. Robert Massett, would later tell police that the disgraced deacon quickly took an interest in an altar boy in a wheelchair, trying -- but failing -- to persuade his mother to let the child come over to Brignac’s home. Brignac would later also teach children about a springtime celebration marking the Virgin Mary’s reported 1917 apparition in Portugal, and picking out the kids’ costumes for a centennial feast.
Aymond this week said he had no idea about Brignac’s involvement at St. Mary Magdalen until the summer of 2018, nine years into his tenure. The archbishop called Massett’s invitation to Brignac “an error without justification,” and archdiocesan officials said a document Massett signed approving Brignac’s role never made it to the archdiocese. They insisted they have since fortified the measures that faltered.
Brignac’s return was hardly the only broken pledge. When negotiating an out-of-court settlement with one of Brignac’s victims in 2018, the archdiocese’s general counsel -- Wendy Vitter, now a federal judge and the wife of a former U.S. senator -- demanded bluntly in an email that the $100,000 payment amount remain confidential.
U.S. bishops' transparency policies since 2002 have prohibited imposing confidentiality on abuse victims. Victims’ advocates say demanding any aspect of a settlement agreement violates those policies. Archdiocesan officials counter that they are permitted to try and keep the size of a settlement confidential.
“I feel like their goal in all of this is to simply sweep it under the rug and try to save face with their followers and also to try to save their money,” said the victim from the criminal case brought against Brignac last year. “They have known who and what George Brignac was for quite a long time.”
When he examined Brignac’s application to become a Catholic deacon in 1974, the Rev. John Favalora, the head of the program, was clearly worried.
Brignac had attended St. Paul’s in Covington and De La Salle in New Orleans, graduating from the latter in 1953 and immediately joining the religious order which founded both high schools: the Christian Brothers. But by 1960 he had been kicked out. He spent the next few years teaching students from 5th to 8th grades at various local Catholic schools, including at St. Matthew the Apostle in River Ridge, where he was also a prefect of discipline.
Nine years into his stint at St. Matthew, Brignac was having a hard time explaining his expulsion from the Christian Brothers.
One record of a conversation between Brignac and an archdiocesan leader says Brignac claimed he was dismissed for vaguely explained “reasons of health.”
“I think more information is needed,” the interviewee wrote.
Favalora, who later became the Archbishop of Miami, sent a letter to a Christian Brothers official, asking about Brignac. “This information will be kept in confidence,” Favalora wrote.
It isn’t clear what the response was. But a handwritten scribble on Favalora’s letter mentions a “positive recommendation” from the order.
Brignac pleaded to be let into the diaconate. The Catholic Church allows married men to become deacons, but they may not marry after ordination. Brignac had never married.
“I fully understand the church’s law of celibacy,” Brignac wrote to Hannan on April 4, 1976. “And I firmly resolve that, with God’s help, I will fully keep it and completely observe it until death.”
The following month, he was ordained and assigned to Our Lady of the Rosary in the 3300 block of Esplanade Avenue.
In a self-evaluation at the end of his first year in ministry, he was asked his favorite aspects of ministry. He replied: “Working with youth.”
‘Victim of his own celibacy’
Brignac continued to teach at St. Matthew. In 1977, his second year as a deacon, three students accused him of sitting them on his lap, shoving his hand down the boys’ pants, and fondling their genitals.
John Anderson, then 11, recalls how Brignac would inflict the abuse in a classroom where other students were present, using two desks to hide what his hands were doing.
“I was scared to death,” Anderson recalled. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Anderson said a boy who saw what Brignac was doing told Anderson’s mom about it during a ride home from school. Anderson said he threw up. His mother initially froze in shock, but then she reported Brignac to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies arrested the newly minted deacon, and prosecutors charged him with three counts of molesting a juvenile.
Brignac, then 43, pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Arthur Kingsmill, theorized that the accusations stemmed from the church’s insistence that clergymen forego sex.
“George is a victim of his own celibacy and society’s willingness to jump to the conclusion that a middle-aged celibate must not be sexually straight,” Kingsmill wrote in a letter years later. “This tendency … (has) crucified a man who loves children in the purest of ways.”
Ultimately, Brignac was found not guilty at a judge trial in 1978.
That same year, he was allowed to move from St. Matthew’s faculty to the one at a familiar place: Our Lady of the Rosary, where as a deacon he had served his entire career.
He didn’t lose access to kids. In fact, he became co-director of the altar boy program at Our Lady of the Rosary, just down the road from Bayou St. John.
In June 1980, familiar allegations surfaced.
An 11-year-old boy alleged that, at lunch, Brignac had tickled his chest, fondled his penis and asked the child for a kiss.
Within days, New Orleans police booked Brignac with molestation of a juvenile. But there’s no indication prosecutors ever filed charges. A church document from 2001 doesn’t even mention the arrest.
After the case against him foundered, Brignac took a job at neighboring Cabrini High School, an all-girls school, and taught mathematics and religion.
He and other deacons received expanded responsibilities in 1985, most notably with regards to weddings. Hannan’s letter explaining the new duties to Brignac thanked him for his “years of dedicated service to the Archdiocese.”
“It is through your gift of yourself that we are able to reach out to so many with the love of Christ,” Hannan’s missive said.
Brignac didn’t enjoy the new privileges for long.
In 1987, a 7-year-old boy reported that, during a Christmas party at Our Lady of the Rosary, he was pulled aside by Brignac, who paid the boy compliments, placed an envelope with money in the student’s front pocket, and began groping his genitals. The boy said it was not the first time.
In a letter many years later, a civil attorney representing the victim alleged the child’s mother had immediately called Our Lady of the Rosary. The attorney claimed one of Brignac’s fellow clergymen at the church said perhaps the boy “had taken the events ‘the wrong way.’”
The boy’s family called the police. Brignac, yet again, was booked with molestation. And this time, in 1988, then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick’s office filed charges.
But when the boy arrived at Criminal District Court to testify, he was rattled by the scene.
At least 50 priests sat in the rows behind Brignac and his attorney, Vincent LoCoco, who was also the board president of Our Lady of the Rosary’s school.
The victim’s family knew many of the priests. Facing them, the child lost his nerve, the letter said.
To spare the child from the ordeal, the family agreed to let Connick’s office drop the charges.
Hannan was elated at the news. He wrote a letter thanking LoCoco for “the good news that the District Attorney’s Office … has dismissed the case against Deacon George Brignac.”
“I am deeply grateful to you,” Hannan wrote to LoCoco, “for your excellent work in this case and your wonderful support of Deacon Brignac.”
This time, Brignac at least faced some consequences.
He “signed an agreement that he would have no contact with young boys for a period of years,” an internal church memo written many years later revealed. He also agreed to undergo at least 17 psychotherapy sessions aimed at helping him achieve “appropriateness of … behavior in his work and in his relationships.”
The Archdiocese of New Orleans, meanwhile, indefinitely suspended Brignac from working as a deacon. And Cabrini fired him, ending a roughly 32-year career in teaching.
Two priests at Our Lady of the Rosary, Edward Boudreaux and Lanaux Rareshide, cried foul in a letter to Hannan.
The letter alleged that the 7-year-old accuser’s own family, along with an attorney, a psychiatrist and a police detective, all said “they did not think the child had been molested.”
“It is judged that Feldner did not do anything wrong,” their letter said, referring to Brignac by his middle name.
Boudreaux and Rareshide also argued that it wasn’t that dangerous to keep Brignac at Our Lady of the Rosary. “Only 61 children” attended the school. About half that number were enrolled in a program that prepared children to receive the sacraments.
“Our Lady of the Rosary Parish has a largely older population,” the monsignors wrote. “Feldner can be most helpful to this (church) through care for the elderly and participation in (church) adult groups.”
Brignac also beseeched Hannan for another chance.
He admitted he gave the 7-year-old money “to spread joy” but denied molesting him. Nonetheless, he conceded it was in the best interests of both the archdiocese and himself to “not be … put in a position of authority or supervision of or work with young boys in the future.”
Brignac added: “If I am guilty of anything it is that I am a caring, loving and affectionate person and that this conduct may be misinterpreted by some people. … I know that I am a person who is outwardly affectionate with young persons but I did not treat anyone in an immoral way nor seek sexual gratification from any child.”
To Brignac, the thought of starting over professionally at 53 was overwhelming. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t continue serving as long as he avoided contact with children.
“I am willing,” he wrote, “to submit to that restriction if that be the condition on which I can return to the ministry I have served well for twelve years.”
In his letter to LoCoco, an outgoing Hannan promised to discuss the prospect of reinstating Brignac with his successor, Archbishop Francis Schulte.
Schulte shot Brignac down, as gently as possible.
“Please be assured that I am aware of your many years of faithful and dedicated service to the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” Schulte wrote to Brignac in 1989. “Much as I would wish otherwise, I cannot offer any encouragement to you for the restoration of your (deacon’s) faculties at the present time.”
However, Schulte added, “I will certainly remember you in prayer, asking the Lord to sustain you during this special time of difficulty.”
The letter makes no reference to the five boys Brignac had been accused of molesting by then or the suspended deacon’s three arrests.
It seemed that New Orleans’ archdiocese had at last disassociated with Brignac. Yet, despite his profile as an inveterate child predator, he soon carved out roles at other local Catholic institutions.
Each would bring him in close proximity to children.