TANGIPAHOA PARISH, La. — Painful memories and emotional turmoil overwhelmed Chad Becnel and his family last month when the Louisiana Department of Corrections mistakenly released a former Catholic school teacher and coach who had sexually molested him and at least 16 other boys in the 1980s and 1990s.
The state rectified the error and threw Brian David Matherne back in prison this month after WWL-TV asked why he had been freed for “good time” when the sentencing judge had explicitly denied Matherne any early release.
But the Becnels are still questioning why Matherne was allowed to keep coaching and teaching at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Norco for more than a year after Chad’s father, Walter, says he brought his son’s allegations to the attention of the auxiliary bishop of New Orleans in February 1998.
That’s a full year earlier than the church had previously acknowledged knowing about the first accusation against Matherne. And the auxiliary bishop who oversaw the Catholic schools at the time was Gregory Aymond, who has been leading the local church as archbishop since 2009 and has come under fire in recent years for his handling of allegations of sexual abuse against local clergy.
For example, Aymond added two priests to a list of credibly accused clergy only after WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune questioned him about allegations against those priests dating back decades. He is also accused in several lawsuits of reacting slowly to abuse claims or allowing accused officials to continue serving a role in the church after allegations were made.
But as archbishop, Aymond has consistently removed accused clergy from active ministry when he has received credible complaints. The Becnels want to know why that wasn’t the case with Matherne, who was allowed to keep working at Sacred Heart and ended up pleading guilty to molesting at least one more young victims in the months after the archdiocese acknowledged it was already investigating the matter.
The archdiocese has long maintained its hands were tied and lawyers advised them they could not suspend Matherne based on a single, unverified complaint.
Walter Becnel said he got a similar excuse when he made the initial complaint to Aymond on his son’s behalf on Feb. 9, 1998.
“He called me back a couple of days later said, ‘Look, I really need to talk to Chad before I can go any further with this because we have to verify that he is the victim and we have to get his story,’” Becnel said. “So, I did call Chad and said, ‘Look, Bishop wants to talk to you." He said, "I'm not ready to talk to him. Not ready, just not ready yet.’”
Chad was 20 at the time and had disclosed Matherne’s abuse to his therapists at the Tau Center, a substance abuse rehabilitation center in Baton Rouge. But he wasn’t ready to speak directly to Aymond about it.
In the 15 months that followed, Walter Becnel says the community ostracized him and his family. Members of the school and church community at Sacred Heart started wearing camouflage ribbons in support of Matherne, an apparent reference to the LaBranche camp Matherne often took boys to go hunting and fishing – and where Chad Becnel said he and other boys were molested by Matherne.
Walter Becnel said the pastor of Sacred Heart church at the time acted like nothing was happening, even asking the Becnels for money to support building a new gym for Matherne's sports teams.
“I said, ‘You can have your pledge card. I don't want anything to do with Brian or his gym,’” Walter recalled. “I said because he's been molesting boys for a long time at this school. He said, ‘Wait, wait.’ I said, ‘Don't tell me you don't know anything about it because Greg Aymond called you and told you to investigate him.’ He said, ‘Well, I did, I did. I called Brian. He told me he didn't do it.’ I said, "That's what you did? You called Brian and ask him if he did it or not? Come on, pedophiles don't admit that kind of stuff!’”
It wasn’t until one of Chad’s therapists heard his allegations against Matherne for the first time in April 1999 that the therapist insisted on reporting it to the police.
That’s when the archdiocese finally suspended Matherne and the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation that collected more than 300 sexual abuse allegations from dozens of victims and led to Matherne’s arrest in August 1999.
After his arrest, archdiocesan spokesman Tom Finney said the church became aware of the allegations against Matherne in February 1999, which is a full year after Walter Becnel said he spoke with Aymond.
A mother of one victim, who did not want to be identified, sat down with WWL-TV and said her son and others would not have been molested if the church had removed Matherne in February 1999. St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said one victim had been molested by Matherne as recently as three weeks before his arrest in August 1999.
WWL-TV asked Finney after the arrest why Matherne had been allowed to keep teaching and coaching kids at the school even while the church was already investigating an allegation against him.
“We cannot suspend someone on a single accusation that he denies,” Finney said. “And we had to complete our investigation, and that took two months, and we suspended him when we felt there was sufficient reason to suspend him.”
By contrast, Aymond has sent letters to several priests in recent years removing them from active ministry while the church investigates the validity of newly received allegations.
Times have certainly changed since 1999, especially after 2002 when a Boston Globe “Spotlight” investigation exposed a massive church coverup of child sexual abuse by priests and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops implemented new policies to protect children and young people.
But the expectations for protecting children from accused pedophiles were not so different in 1999, as Raul Bencomo, an attorney representing several of Matherne’s victims, expressed in an interview with WWL-TV after Matherne’s arrest.
“If someone is suspected of embezzling, you're not going to keep them handling the money,” Becnomo said. “With something so serious as an allegation of child sexual abuse, you certainly need to remove that individual or put him in another position, with pay, while you're conducting your due diligence.”
Asked why that wasn’t how Aymond handled the 1998 complaint against Matherne, the archdiocese said in a statement: "Archbishop Aymond has addressed the situation involving Brian Matherne multiple times over the years. Matherne's early and mistaken release from prison was a shock and surprise to us, and we are relieved the state's error was so quickly rectified."