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New Orleans Archdiocese priests rally in support of Archbishop Aymond

The priests of the Archdiocese wrote a letter in support of Archbishop Gregory Aymond after the church has had a tough couple of weeks.

NEW ORLEANS — A little more than two weeks after he removed a pair of priests under his command from public ministry, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond on Friday met with the rest of his clergymen and called on them to rededicate themselves to the vows they took at their ordinations, according to priests who attended.

The leaders of two local clerical councils wrote an open letter to the area’s Catholics after the meeting, saying that Aymond prayed with them and “exhorted all of us to pray regularly for victims of sexual abuse.”

The letter also served as a vote of confidence in the leadership of Aymond as he tries to steer the archdiocese through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and continued revelations associated with the worldwide church’s clerical molestation scandal. 

“All 335 priests in the Archdiocese … emphatically support Archbishop Aymond,” the letter said. “Archbishop Aymond is a dedicated, faithful and holy priest of Jesus Christ. He has always faithfully served the people of God throughout his priesthood.”

RELATED: Losing Faith: The Church Sex Abuse Scandal

After their three-hour meeting at Notre Dame Seminary let out, two priests spoke with WWL-TV on condition of anonymity. One said Aymond’s message to the clergy was “we need to work to rekindle the fire of the faithful.” Another said Aymond is “trying to do the right thing, but it’s difficult because there’s a much bigger picture and it points to some systemic flaws that need to be discovered and addressed, and he’s aware of that.”

Later Friday afternoon, the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests staged a small demonstration outside the seminary with about 20 alleged victims and supporters to again question Aymond’s commitment to a full local accounting of the molestation crisis. 

Dominating the meeting was the archdiocese’s removal of the Revs. Patrick Wattigny and Travis Clark from the ministry on Oct. 1.

Wattigny, the longtime pastor at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish and former chaplain of Pope John Paul II, both in Slidell, had allegedly self-reported abusing a minor in December 2013. He purportedly made that admission while undergoing psychological evaluations over improper text messages that he had sent to a Pope John Paul II student earlier this year, leading to his forced resignation as the school’s chaplain this summer.

This week, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office confirmed it had opened a criminal investigation into the 2013 allegation. 

Meanwhile, Clark, who had replaced Wattigny as Pope John Paul II chaplain and was the pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Pearl River, had allegedly recorded himself engaging in three-way sex with two professional dominatrices atop the altar at his church. The sex was consensual, but Clark and the two women -- Mindy Dixon and Melissa Cheng -- were arrested on charges of obscenity after a passerby saw them through a window, recorded a separate cellphone video and called the police, according to court documents reviewed exclusively by The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.

The removals submerged the archdiocese in scandal five months to the day after it went to federal bankruptcy court and filed for financial reorganization, citing costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic as well as litigation pertaining to the clerical abuse scandal.  

Wattigny’s alleged admission shattered the archdiocese’s long-held belief that no clergymen had abused children since 2002, when U.S. bishops passed safety measures meant to root out predator priests and deacons. As recently as this year, Aymond said he had not seen any allegations of abuse that had taken place in the last decade.

And the local SNAP chapter held up Clark’s arrest and the allegations against Wattigny as evidence that Aymond could not control his clergy and therefore should be investigated by Pope Francis for possible removal.

SNAP leader Kevin Bourgeois also questioned why Aymond’s reaction to Clark was so much stronger than what he’s seen in response to allegations against more than 70 clergymen the archdiocese acknowledges to be credibly accused child molesters. 

Notably, the archbishop ordered the altar at Saints Peter and Paul burned and replaced with a new one, and he condemned Clark’s alleged actions as “demonic.” 

“If Archbishop Aymond can light an altar on fire, then why hasn’t he burned down every religious building in the archdiocese of New Orleans,” Bourgeois said. “There wouldn’t be anything standing if he cared more about the abuse survivors than he cared about a priest having sex with two porn actresses.” 

The letter supporting Aymond argued that he deserved more credit for being willing to add names to a list of credibly accused clergymen which was 57 names long when it was first released in November 2018 but as of Friday had grown to 72 entries. 

“Although a small number of priests have betrayed us and you, we commit ourselves and our lives wholeheartedly to the mission of Jesus Christ made present in the Church,” the letter said. “Be assured that the Church cannot and will not tolerate any sexual abuse or misconduct on the part of any cleric.”

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