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Priest accused of 2013 abuse allegedly sent inappropriate texts to minor in 2020

An attorney representing the family of the student alleged Friday that the messages constituted “grooming” for sexual activity.

About four months before the Rev. Patrick Wattigny allegedly disclosed to the Archdiocese of New Orleans that he sexually abused a minor in 2013, he resigned from his post as chaplain at Pope John Paul II High School because he sent a series of text messages to a student this year that violated diocesan policies, church officials said Friday.

An attorney representing the family of the student alleged Friday that the messages constituted “grooming” for sexual activity, including repeatedly asking the boy when his 18th birthday was. 

A statement from the archdiocese denied that any of the messages contained sexual references “or innuendo,” but they nonetheless represented a breach of archdiocesan policy mandating professionally-toned communications with students.

The archdiocese said a disciplinary investigation into the messages not only prompted Wattigny’s resignation, but it also led to Wattigny’s disclosing his alleged abuse of another juvenile roughly seven years ago.

Neither the attorney, Bill Arata, nor the archdiocese provided The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate or WWL-TV the text messages. Archdiocesan officials said they immediately reported Wattigny to law enforcement but that, as of Friday afternoon, they had no “other allegations of sexual abuse of a minor” by him.

Wattigny declined comment when reached by phone Friday.

The new allegations come a day after Archbishop Greg Aymond announced that Wattigny had been removed from ministry and was the 65th name added to the Catholic church’s list of clergy believed to have molested children or teens. 

The archdiocese said Wattigny told church officials Thursday afternoon that he had sexually abused a minor seven years ago. Though 2013 was when his long tenure as pastor of St. Benilde Parish in Metairie and chaplain of Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie ended, and he was transferred to the north shore, the archdiocese said Friday it was unaware of any alleged abuse, and his move was unrelated.

The revelation that Wattigny, also the pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Church near Pope John Paul II in Slidell, among other area postings, had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct less than a decade ago sent shockwaves through the New Orleans Catholic community. 

That is because the alleged abuse occurred despite continued assurances from church leaders in recent years that policies adopted nearly two decades ago had rooted out predator priests. 

Now, the allegations of inappropriate text messages sent earlier this year have put the focus on Wattigny’s more recent activities and postings.

The Archdiocese said its general counsel, Susan Zeringue, met the mother of Arata’s client in February 2020, and both reviewed a series of text messages between Wattigny and the student which had been culled from the boy’s phone. The mother did not accuse Wattigny of sexually abusing her son, but she was concerned about the texting, which the archdiocese’s statement described as “overly familiar in tone.” 

Arata on Friday contended the tone was worse than that. Besides asking the boy multiple times when he would reach adulthood, Wattigny sent suggestive remarks, some in the wee hours, Arata said. The lawyer wouldn’t elaborate but said the messages violated rules forbidding school staff from to contact students without another adult copied on the conversation, among other things.

“Within the text messages are proof of gifts, special lunches, private meetings in the office,” Arata said.

Both the archdiocese and Arata said Wattigny continued sending texts to the student after the February meeting, and Zeringue was again provided copies of the messages. While those messages still didn’t contain sexual references or innuendo, Zeringue again put them in the hands of archdiocesan brass. 

This time, the archdiocese said the messages violated policies governing communications between church personnel and young people whom they encounter during their work. The church asked Wattigny to resign his position at Pope John Paul II, though he remained as the pastor at St. Luke the Evangelist Church, about a mile from the school’s campus. 

The archdiocese didn’t say exactly when Wattigny resigned from Pope John Paul II. Arata said Zeringue informed him in June that Wattigny had left the school and was also undergoing “a sex abuse evaluation” at a clinic. 

The archdiocese on Friday used different terms for that evaluation, describing it as “assessments for professional insight.” 

Whatever the case, the archdiocese’s statement on Friday said its handling of Wattigney directly led to his disclosing his alleged abuse of a minor in 2013. 

Arata was incredulous that the archdiocese said that, arguing that it had grounds to discipline Wattigny much sooner.

“It seems like (their statement) is a lot of fancy words for, ‘We knew, and we did nothing about it,’” Arata said. 

Photos show Wattigny addressing attendees of Pope John Paul II’s graduation ceremony on July 28. Arata said he was bothered that Wattigney had been allowed back on the Pope John Paul II campus for an event in early September which honored the 40th anniversary of the school’s founding. 

“When you act, act when you first hear about a thing, not eight months later. These are our children,” said Arata, who also has a son at Pope John Paul II. “We entrust our children to you.”

Coincidentally, Wattigny was replaced as Pope John Paul II’s school chaplain by the Rev. Travis Clark, whom Pearl River police arrested Thursday on a count of obscenity. Pearl River’s police chief refused to release details about the case, saying it remained under investigation. But obscenity cases against men typically involve the alleged public exposure of the genitals or buttocks.

Aymond said Clark, who remained jailed Friday morning, was accused of targeting women. The archbishop removed Clark from ministry on Thursday as well.

Wattigny, who was ordained in 1994, had been at Pope John Paul II and St. Luke since 2013. He was president of Pope John Paul II for the 2017-18 academic school year, though the archdiocese said it ultimately eliminated his position amid an administrative realignment.

He had been the pastor at St. Benilde in Metairie and the chaplain at nearby Archbishop Rummel High School for 13 years beginning in 2000. And, in the six years before that, he worked at St. Peter in Covington; Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner.