SLIDELL, La. — Police in Georgia have arrested Roman Catholic priest Patrick Wattigny on a St. Tammany Parish warrant accusing him of sexually abusing a minor from 2013 to 2015 while he was leading a Slidell church, authorities said Friday.
Wattigny’s arrest comes a little more than three weeks after he allegedly admitted to the Archdiocese of New Orleans that he had started sexually abusing an underage boy in 2013. He faces four counts of molestation of a juvenile, all stemming from the same alleged victim, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office said.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, Wattigny started grooming the alleged victim when the boy was 15. It began with a conversation that led to telephone calls, text messages and then private visits, investigators said. Wattigny, now 53, is accused of molesting the teen at least four times between Christmas Eve 2013 and New Year's Eve 2015, including some occasions in a church rectory.
At the time, Wattigny was the pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist near Slidell.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond removed Wattigny from public ministry shortly after the priest allegedly admitted the abuse on Oct. 1. Church officials notified St. Tammany law enforcement, setting the stage for his eventual arrest.
Police in West Point, Georgia, arrested Wattigny about 7 p.m. Thursday at a home he owns there, records show. Assessor's records in Troup County, Georgia, show Wattigny bought the home, which was being foreclosed upon, in 2012.
Wattigny is being held in the Troup County Jail near Lagrange, Georgia.
While some jails are sited in the middle of a town or city, Troup County’s jail is in a rural setting, surrounded on all sides by thick Georgia woods.
The jail’s website says the facility holds an average of 380 people per day, with about 3,000 people moving through each year.
The website prisonpro.com says general population is housed in open dorms, but there are cells for troublemakers and others who might need to be isolated.
The same site says the facility has a chaplain and there are worship services available.
Wattigny as of Friday was awaiting transfer from Georgia to St. Tammany's jail in Covington. The Sheriff's Office said a transfer could occur by early next week.
Under Louisiana law, anyone who is in "a position of control or supervision" over a minor and engages in sexual activity with that child can be booked with molestation of a juvenile. Because the alleged victim is older than 13 but younger than 17, Wattigny would face between five and 20 years in prison if convicted of that specific crime.
“It is deeply disturbing when an individual in a position of authority uses that position to prey on the most defenseless of our population — our children,” St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the archdiocese issued a statement Friday saying, "Our prayers are with the victim of this abuse."
The statement added: "We have cooperated with the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office investigation and pledge our continued cooperation as this moves forward."
Wattigny is the second New Orleans-area Catholic clergyman to be arrested on child molestation charges in a little more than a year. Last year, deacon George Brignac was charged with raping a child between 1979 and 1982. Brignac died in June while awaiting trial.
The disclosures allegedly made by Wattigny to the archdiocese became public at the same time another north shore priest, the Rev. Travis Clark, was arrested in Pearl River on obscenity charges.
Clark allegedly had sex on the altar of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Pearl River with two dominatrices within view of a passerby using a nearby sidewalk.
Aymond this week said he would urge Wattigny and about a half-dozen other living diocesan clerics who are considered credibly accused of child molestation to undergo "laicization," a process by which they would leave the priesthood and return to the laity. Aymond said he would also make the same request of Clark.
Ordained in 1994, Wattigny spent the first six years of his career working at St. Peter Catholic Church in Covington; Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner.
He became the pastor at St. Benilde Parish as well as the chaplain at Archbishop Rummel High School, both in Metairie, in 2000 and remained there until June 2013.
That's when Wattigny became the pastor at St. Luke the Evangelist in Slidell, a post he held until his removal from ministry.
While pastor at St. Luke, Wattigny also served as chaplain of Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell, and was its president for the 2017-18 academic year.
It was at Pope John Paul where Wattigny's unraveling began.
In February, the mother of a student at Pope John Paul II High alerted the archdiocese that her son had received some 90 printed pages of inappropriate text messages from Wattigny.
Aymond has said he ordered Wattigny to discontinue the texts, which violated church policies requiring that communications with young people remain professional. But Wattigny later resumed texting the boy. He then resigned as school chaplain this summer at the archdiocese's request.
The archdiocese also ordered Wattigny to undergo psychological evaluation and attend a 30-day retreat. Aymond has said it was during that process when Wattigny disclosed the alleged abuse of a separate boy which began in 2013, leading to the investigation which resulted in his arrest Thursday night.
Attorney Bill Arata, who represents the family of the boy who received the inappropriate texts from Wattigny earlier this year, thanked the Sheriff's Office "for doing what needed to be done."
“What my clients brought forward, what I produced to the archdiocese on multiple occasions was evidence of grooming … that continued even after they told us Pat Wattigny was instructed not to do it again,” Arata said. "These text messages fit his M.O."
An archdiocesan spokesperson said church officials turned over the texts to sheriff's deputies as part of the investigation.
It was not immediately clear whether Wattigny had retained a defense attorney. WWL-TV requested an interview with Wattigny through the Troup County Sheriff’s Office but jail officials declined.
Wattigny is now on a list of more than 70 priests and deacons that the archdiocese acknowledges are strongly suspected to be child molesters. His alleged confession counters the archdiocese's long-held contention that no clergymen in the New Orleans area had been sexually abusive to minors after U.S. bishops implemented a raft of safeguards for underage parishioners and students in 2002.
Besides Brignac and Wattigny, the only other New Orleans-area clergyman to be pursued by law enforcement for child sex charges was former priest Dino Cinel, who was murdered in Colombia in 2018. Cinel was acquitted of child pornography-related charges in the 1990s before voluntarily undergoing laicization in 2010.