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Home/Rod Dreher/The Archbishop’s Silence

The Archbishop’s Silence

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, a chestless church bureaucrat (WWL screenshot)

Here in south Louisiana, everybody is talking about the hurricane coming ashore today. But they’re also talking about this vile story from a small town north of New Orleans: 

The lights inside Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Pearl River were on later than usual on Sept. 30, so a passerby stopped to take a closer look.

Peering inside, the onlooker saw the small parish’s pastor half-naked having sex with two women on the altar, according to court documents. The women were dressed in corsets and high-heeled boots. There were sex toys and stage lighting. And a mobile phone was mounted on a tripod, recording it all.

Father Travis Clark (St. Tammany Sheriff’s Dept)

The eyewitness took a video and called the Pearl River police, who arrived at the church and viewed that recording. Officers then arrested the Rev. Travis Clark, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul since 2019, on obscenity charges.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans announced the priest’s arrest Oct. 1 but would not give specifics about why he was arrested. Nor would the police.

New details, however, have emerged in court filings that paint a lurid picture of a priest recording himself engaged in sexual role play while desecrating a sacred place within the church. Public records additionally show that one of the women, Mindy Dixon, 41, is an adult film actor who also works for hire as a dominatrix. On a social media account associated with Dixon, a Sept. 29 post says she was on her way to the New Orleans area to meet another dominatrix “and defile a house of God.”

Read it all. 

Obviously this is demonic. What is also infuriating is that Archbishop Aymond is treating this like a management problem. He’s stayed quiet (notice that the media found out through court filings), came in and exorcised the church, appointed a new priest, and sent an official letter saying that he is standing by the parish in its time of scandal.

“Be assured of my continued personal support and prayers for your parish community.” Those are the words of a bureaucrat, not a pastor. My God, this priest had kinky sex on the holy altar! The archbishop ought to be visibly shaken and infuriated by this desecration, and the pain it must cause the people of the parish. He has reportedly suspended Father Clark. Suspended? He ought to begin the defrocking process immediately, and make it publicly known that he is doing this.

Worse, it turns out that Father Clark had just been named chaplain of Pope John Paul II Catholic high school in nearby Slidell. He had been appointed to replace Father Pat Wattigny, removed from that position on October 1 after he admitted to Archbishop Aymond that in 2013, he molested a minor. From WWL’s report:

Pope John Paul II’s principal on Tuesday sent a letter to school parents rebuking Aymond for waiting until last week to tell him that Wattigny had been under investigation for those texts since February.

Bill Arata, an attorney representing a student who received texts from Wattigny and a father of another Pope John Paul II student, said the students are struggling with the news.

“Today is one full week to hear two incredibly disappointing events and to say that an in-house deacon can provide counseling to these kids when the deacon has children at the school would be the equivalent of sending me to do it,” Arata said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think they need world-class crisis intervention. It’s obvious now they need it.”

But get this: the Archdiocese has known all year that Father Wattigny was under investigation for sending inappropriate texts to a male student in that high school (asking, for example, when he would turn 18) — but it did not tell the high school’s principal. More:

Arata said Wattigny was sending texts to his client in the middle of the night, repeatedly asking when the boy would turn 18 and discussing private, in-person meetings.

The texts that the student’s mother turned over are from February and July and cover 90 printed pages, Arata said. Both batches of texts were provided to the Archdiocese’s general counsel, Susan Zeringue, who met with the boy’s mother in February, the archdiocese confirmed.

Aymond’s letter to Pope John Paul families defended the archdiocese’s handling of Wattigny, explaining how the church arranged for him to undergo “professional assessments” that led the priest to disclose an episode where he did abuse a child.

Gosh, parents, what’s your problem? The archbishop said that the lecherous priest preying on your sons via text message, trying to figure out when it would be legal to get into their pants, had been made to undergo “professional assessments.” What more do you want?

(I’m being sarcastic. What would Walker Percy have been able to do with a deadhead bureaucrat like Archbishop Aymond?!)

These guys, the bishops: they will never, ever get it. Many of them have shown over and over that they will protect the perceived interest of the institution over the interests of the Catholic people. And then when scandal breaks, they treat it like a corporate crisis to be managed, not a moral and spiritual catastrophe.

When, exactly, was Archbishop Aymond planning to tell the people of that parish, and of the archdiocese, that a parish priest and chaplain of a big Catholic high school had been caught having sex with dominatrixes on the altar of a church? Why did the Catholics of the archdiocese have to learn about this from the media perusing court documents? Why did it take eight months for the archbishop to tell the leadership of the Catholic high school that the chaplain appeared to be cruising boys in the school? This, eighteen years after Boston! 

Why should anybody look to the archbishop and the clergy for spiritual and moral leadership?

The decadence of Father Clark and Father Wattigny are part of the problem. But the greater problem is the decadent passivity of men like Archbishop Aymond. According to Hannah Arendt, the collapse of faith in institutions and hierarchies was a precursor of totalitarianism in Russia and Germany. I know less about the situation of the Weimar-era German church, but in Russia’s late imperial period, the Orthodox Church hierarchy discredited itself in the eyes of many by being mindlessly conservative and indifferent to the suffering of the people. Younger priests begged with the hierarchy to open its eyes to what was happening, but they were rebuffed.

We are in a very similar situation here. And the Father Clarks and Wattignys are part of this — but the Archbishop Aymonds are more culpable, because of the folly of their passivity, which causes people to lose trust in them. From Live Not By Lies:

Americans’ loss of faith in institutions and hierarchies began in the 1960s. In Europe, though, it started in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Surveying the political scene in Germany during the 1920s, Arendt noted a “terrifying negative solidarity” among people from diverse classes, united in their belief that all political parties were populated by fools.

Are we today really so different? According to Gallup, Americans’ confidence in their institutions—political, media, religious, legal, medical, corporate—is at historic lows across the board. Only the military, the police, and small businesses retain the strong confidence of over 50 percent. Democratic norms are under strain in many industrialized nations, with the support for mainstream parties of left and right in decline.

In Europe of the 1920s, says Arendt, the first indication of the coming totalitarianism was the failure of established parties to attract younger members, and the willingness of the passive masses to consider radical alternatives to discredited establishment parties.

A loss of faith in democratic politics is a sign of a deeper and broader instability. As radical individualism has become more pervasive in our consumerist-driven culture, people have ceased to look outside themselves for authoritative sources of meaning. This is the fulfillment of modern liberalism’s goal: to free the individual from any unchosen obligations.

But this imposes a terrible psychological burden on the individual, many of whom may seek deliverance in the certainties and solidarity offered by totalitarian movements.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim observed that many people who had been set free from the bonds of religion did not thrive in their liberty. In fact, they lost a shared sense of purpose, of meaning, and of community. A number of these despairing people committed suicide. According to Durkheim, what happened to individuals could also happen to societies.

You can destroy as much by failing to build as by actively wrecking. Philip Rieff said the collapse of a civilizational order begins when its elites cease to be able to transmit faith in its institutions and customs to younger generations.

How many of those students at John Paul II Catholic High School are going to be inspired to draw closer to their Catholic faith after seeing what their previous and current chaplains were up to, and by seeing how their chestless hierarch dealt with these scandals?

I have said it in this space before, and I’ll say it again, to my Catholic readers and to all Christians: for the most part, we are on our own. If we sit around waiting for institutional leadership to get its act together, we will wait in vain, and suffer the consequences — and so will our children and grandchildren.

As you know, I dedicatedLive Not By Lies to the brave and heroic Catholic priest Father Tomislav Kolakovic, who understood the threat facing the Christians of Slovakia from communist totalitarianism, and was not deterred by the criticism of his bishops, who told him he was being alarmist. From Live Not By Lies:

Father Kolaković knew that the clericalism and passivity of traditional Slovak Catholicism would be no match for communism. For one thing, he correctly foresaw that the communists would try to control the church by subduing the clergy. For another, he understood that the spiritual trials awaiting believers under communism would put them to an extreme test. The charismatic pastor preached that only a total life commitment to Christ would enable them to withstand the coming trial.

“Give yourself totally to Christ, throw all your worries and desires on him, for he has a wide back, and you will witness miracles,” the priest said, in the recollection of one disciple.1
Giving oneself totally to Christ was not an abstraction or a pious thought. It needed to be concrete, and it needed to be communal. The total destruction of the First World War opened the eyes of younger Catholics to the need for a new evangelization. A Belgian priest named Joseph Cardijn, whose father had been killed in a mining accident, started a lay movement to do this among the working class.

These were the Young Christian Workers, called “Jocists” after the initials of their name in French. Inspired by the Jocist example, Father Kolaković adapted it to the needs of the Catholic Church in German-occupied Slovakia. He established cells of faithful young Catholics who came together for prayer, study, and fellowship.

The refugee priest taught the young Slovak believers that every person must be accountable to God for his actions. Freedom is responsibility, he stressed; it is a means to live within the truth. The motto of the Jocists became the motto for what Father Kolaković called his “Family”: “See. Judge. Act.”

See meant to be awake to realities around you. Judge was a command to discern soberly the meaning of those realities in light of what you know to be true, especially from the teachings of the Christian faith. After you reach a conclusion, then you are to act to resist evil.

Václav Vaško, a Kolaković follower, recalled late in his life that Father Kolaković’s ministry excited so many young Catholics because it energized the laity and gave them a sense of leadership responsibility.

“It is remarkable how Kolaković almost instantly succeeded in creating a community of trust and mutual friendship from a diverse grouping of people (priests, religious and lay people of different ages, education, or spiritual maturity),” Vaško wrote.

The Family groups came together at first for Bible study and prayer, but soon began listening to Father Kolaković lecture on philosophy, sociology, and intellectual topics. Father Kolaković also trained his young followers in how to work secretly, and to withstand the interrogation that he said would surely come.

The Family expanded its small groups quickly across the nation. “By the end of the school year 1944,” Vaško said, “it would have been difficult to find a faculty or secondary school in Bratislava or larger cities where our circles did not operate.”

I hope faithful Catholics and other Christians will turn their righteous anger over grotesque moral and spiritual failures by the clergy, especially hierarchs, into building something positive, like Father Kolakovic did. He was not disobedient to the bishops, but he also knew that the bishops were largely useless in preparing the church for what was coming. So it is with us. Pious passivity in a time of emergency is poison. These Aymonds, they are nothing more than managers of decline.

Here is Father Tomislav Kolakovic, a holy priest. Here is a strong, brave, and daring man of God — a man with chest:

UPDATE: A reader sends in the letter that Archbishop Aymond (and another official) sent to the parents of students at JP2 High School (I had to break up the screenshots, which is why they’re uneven):

I still find that appallingly legalistic.

The same reader sent the letter that JP2 High principal Douglas Triche wrote to the parents:

The failure of authority in the Archdiocesan office ends up harming the authority of the high school’s leadership, even though they did nothing wrong, and didn’t even know what was going on. I think it was Joseph Schumpeter who said that all institutional bureaucracies will, over time, come to conflate their own personal interests with the interest of the institution. Pat Wattigny’s welfare appears to have mattered more to the Archdiocese than the welfare of the boys in that school, some of whom he seems, from media reports, to have been hitting on.

UPDATE.2: A Catholic priest sends in this book from Archbishop Aymond’s oeuvre:

He adds:

Prior to New Orleans, when Aymond was bishop of Austin, he was in charge of the USCCB office that dealt with abuse of minors. In fact, he was the featured speaker in a set of videos used for training clergy and laity in best practices to protect youth. Thus, he knows full well the nature of “grooming” and the prohibitions of inappropriate private contact or conversations that fall short of outright sexual contact. These are, in themselves, grounds for investigation and penalties. By the nature of the chaplain’s assignment, any such investigation would have had to include informing and questioning the principle. Even IF there was some reason the investigation was legitimately impeded, the archbishop should have removed the priest from the assignment once inappropriate interaction with a student came to his attention. If he did not do so, parents and others involved should denounce him to the Nuncio and directly to the Holy Father so that no one in the Vatican can say they were not told.

Setting aside the particular case in New Orleans, please avoid the trope that derelict bishops seek to protect the institution or the priesthood.  While in theory those concerns could motivate a person, in fact what one usually finds in these cases is that bishops are out to protect themselves and their status in the eyes of their peers, the Roman Curia, and the Pope. For example, these bishops don’t voluntarily fall on their sword to protect their diocese or the priesthood. Nor do they personally seek to make restitution for the financial damage their administration has wreaked upon the diocese.  Instead, they cling to their office, their retirement, and the trappings of the episcopacy with the last full measure of devotion.  It just so happens that steps they believe will protect themselves may also appear to protect the institution or the priesthood.
Many of the bishops become bishops by scrupulously avoiding making waves–which may serve institutional security, but is always intended to maximize the chance of their own advancement.  Most of them simply want to avoid problems, cover them up, or make them go away. Admitting the problem, actively seeking its roots and branches, and then removing and repairing the damage is never this type of bishop’s first step. Often, these steps are never taken because it is easier and “safer” to face only what has to be faced when it has to be faced. So, it’s usually either no steps or half-steps. That’s known as the “curial shuffle.”
UPDATE.3: The Archdiocese of New Orleans released this video on Friday:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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