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‘Evil does exist’: Louisiana victim of Catholic priest abuse urges reform

Tim Gioe, who was groomed as a child, is pressing for parental consent to be obtained before priests are left alone with children

Tim Gioe will never forget how his Roman Catholic priest, Patrick Wattigny, used their time alone when he was a boy. It was during these moments together – during the sacrament of confession – that Wattigny began grooming him for sexual abuse, of which the clergyman was recently convicted.

So now the 36-year-old Gioe and his wife, Sarah, who are raising three sons together, are advocating for schools and other parochial institutions to be formally required to obtain fully informed parental consent before priests are left alone with children to hear about – and forgive – their sins as part of what is also known as reconciliation.

The Gioes would also like for it to be required to offer parents the opportunity to at least see into any space where such confessions would be heard, to reduce the chances of anything abusive taking place.

“Me and Sarah have had some conversations about whether we would ever allow our children to be in [confession alone] or one-on-one with a priest,” Gioe said. “And the answer, for me, is no.”

As the Gioes told it recently to the Guardian, it’s easy to understand why the topic is an urgent one for the couple, who are nurse practitioners and run a psychiatric office together.

For one, despite Tim’s abuse, he and Sarah are sending their boys – ages two, five and seven – to local parochial schools because they often offer better educations than many of their public counterparts in their home state of Louisiana. The pair, who met while they were in nursing school, also still believe in their Catholic faith.

Then there’s the lifelong effects of the violation of trust that Gioe endured at the hands of Wattigny, 55. For the first time ever with a media outlet, Tim agreed to open up about it – along with how Sarah and other loved ones helped him survive pressing a case against Wattigny – in hopes that his experience somehow shields others from undergoing a similar ordeal.

“Evil does exist,” Gioe said. Addressing those who may be in positions to consider reforms like the one he’s suggesting, he remarked: “What are they going to do to protect my kids, to protect their kids, and to protect their kids’ kids?”

Gioe recalled that he was nine when he met Wattigny in the summer of 1996 in Covington, Louisiana, about 40 miles north of New Orleans. Gioe’s family had just moved there from another south-east Louisiana community, and Wattigny tried to warm himself to the boy by telling Tim that he and his father had gone to high school together.

Wattigny also spoke approvingly of how Tim played baseball and would offer the boy pro players’ cards for him to add to his collection, according to Gioe.

“He … became … very much like a friend,” Gioe said of Wattigny. “He told me I could tell him anything.”

Soon, Gioe ended up going to confession with Wattigny, which Catholics are required to complete if they want to then engage in the sacrament of communion.

Wattigny said “anything we talked about was confidential – that he could not tell others what we discussed, nor could I tell anyone else,” Gioe recalled. “The only way to heaven – and not hell – was to be completely honest with him because God knew if I was lying.”

Gioe recounted how Wattigny made it a point to ask him about his sexuality and sexual development during his confessions, beginning with the first one. That made Tim uncomfortable, but he answered Wattigny’s questions believing he had to so the priest would tell him what prayers he should say to gain forgiveness for his sins.

Then came the day where Wattigny curtly told Gioe that he was in trouble and needed to follow him to the rectory. Gioe said he obeyed, and when they were alone, Wattigny fondled his genitals, used his fingers to rape him and told the boy he would go to hell if he told anyone what had happened.

“He turned on me,” Gioe said of Wattigny. “I thought he was the closest thing to God – the closest thing to love and peace – but he was the exact opposite.”

Gioe for years abided by Wattigny’s demand to keep quiet – at great personal cost to him.

Even as he has pursued a career in mental healthcare and started a family with Sarah, he’s had panic attacks during weddings, funerals and places where “people gather to pray”.

Gioe can’t help but wonder if a bout with thyroid cancer in his 20s was at all linked to his molestation by Wattigny or the emotional turmoil that it caused, citing a study which found higher rates of cancer among child sexual abuse victims.

Ultimately, Gioe reconsidered his silence after news broke about three years ago that a former student at a Catholic high school in Slidell, Louisiana, where Wattigny had been chaplain reported that the clergyman had molested him in about 2013.

Not only were there also reports at the time that Wattigny had sent inappropriate text messages to at least one other child at that school. After the archdiocese had sent him to therapy, Wattigny had also confessed to groping, fondling and kissing children while sexually fantasizing about students around him, too.

When Gioe decided to call authorities and report what Wattigny had coerced him into keeping secret, the clergyman had been arrested in connection with the 2013 case. And he had been suspended from publicly administering masses indefinitely.

But he had also been released from custody on bail, and had pleaded not guilty.

The ensuing chain of events was grueling, Gioe said. He felt like the first investigator with whom he worked was overly skeptical of Gioe’s recollections before another detective took over the case.

Going over what Wattigny had done was so draining that he occasionally couldn’t get out of bed to be with Sarah and their boys, whose sports teams he coaches.

Authorities did rearrest Wattigny and charge him in connection with Gioe’s report last year. But then when all indications were that he would plead guilty in June, the case was unexpectedly postponed for a month. The Gioes were in court when they realized the appointments they had canceled and the money they had spent on a babysitter for their children that day were for nothing.

When everyone reconvened on 12 July, Wattigny pleaded guilty as charged to one count of molestation of a juvenile under his supervision in the case dating back to 2013. For Gioe, the clergyman entered what is known as an Alford plea, in which defendants technically stop short of admitting wrongdoing but declare themselves guilty because they acknowledge evidence against them would likely result in their conviction.

Gioe read a four-page statement to Wattigny that day in which he told him: “You, sir, are not God. You never were and you never will be.”

Then, while Tim sat alongside Sarah and other family members, the judge overseeing the case – John Keller – ordered Wattigny to spend five years in prison and to register as a sex offender upon his release.

The leniency of the punishment stung the Gioes, both said. He furthermore couldn’t believe it when his attorney, Bill Arata, was told by authorities that Wattigny wouldn’t be prosecuted for the inappropriate texts that he had been caught sending because there is no law in Louisiana which criminalizes grooming someone for molestation. Only the abuse itself is illegal, Arata was told.

Despite an order prohibiting him from ever contacting Tim or his family, he is dreading how he’ll handle it when Wattigny completes his sentence – mainly because mental health experts have concluded there is no cure for pedophilia, only treatments.

“I can see why people don’t come forward,” Tim said.

Yet Tim Gioe also acknowledges that many clerical molestation victims never see their abusers land behind bars. In fact, of 17 priests or deacons who were still living when the archdiocese of New Orleans added them to an internally maintained list of credibly accused abusers, Wattigny is the only one who has been convicted of a crime.

“I do feel lucky that he’s in prison,” Gioe said. “But I’m still pissed.”

Nonetheless, the Gioes look forward. They are quick to say that they understand most priests aren’t abusers like Wattigny. But they still hope their suggested changes to confession are given serious consideration by the relevant powers.

And they also hope Tim’s story continues to erode the skepticism that some still direct at clerical molestation survivors when they first report their abuse.

“They deserve to be … respected,” Sarah Gioe said. “They deserve to be believed – especially if there’s a priest that’s already confessed.”

Source: The Guardian