Inside Report: Church’s response to allegation seems strange

After revelations about pedophile priest Gilbert Gauthe in the 1980s marred the Diocese of Lafayette and marked the start of a worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal, one might think any priest accused of molesting a child here would be the subject of a thorough and well-documented investigation.

So the official response of the diocese to newly revealed allegations that the Rev. Gilbert Dutel molested a child in the 1970s might seem surprising.

“There was an investigation by Bishop Harry Flynn in 1992,” diocese spokesman Monsignor Richard Greene said in a written response to recent questions from The Advocate. “We have no record in the files, but apparently Bishop Flynn was satisfied that there was no credible allegation.”

The lack of any record of an investigation of clergy sex abuse in the early 1990s seems almost unbelievable, especially if it exonerated a priest.

The known evidence related to Dutel is by no means conclusive, but it certainly seems to warrant something beyond a simple denial.

Dutel, 69, the priest at St. Edmond Catholic Church in Lafayette, was accused in a 1992 statement by an adult who claimed the priest molested him in the 1970s.

The statement was in the file of a once-sealed lawsuit that came to light in a Minnesota Public Radio investigative reporting series that looked into the role former Diocese of Lafayette Bishop Harry Flynn played in the pedophile priest scandals in Louisiana and Minnesota.

The suit was not against Dutel. It was a legal dispute between the Diocese of Lafayette and its insurers over payments to abuse victims, but Dutel was listed as one of the priests the diocese should have been concerned about.

The man who gave that statement about Dutel also alleged abuse at the hands of two former Diocese of Lafayette priests — the Rev. Ronald Lane Fontenot and the Rev. David Primeaux, the first a convicted child molester and the second an admitted one who left the priesthood years ago but killed himself in 2012 when confronted about his pedophile past.

The once-sealed lawsuit also includes a sworn affidavit from Abbeville attorney Anthony Fontana Jr., who has sued the diocese numerous times in clergy abuse cases and who said he heard allegations against Dutel in the late 1980s and raised the issue with Flynn.

“When I complained to Bishop Flynn about the failure to remove Father Dutel and the need to protect parishioners from him, Bishop Flynn justified his action on the basis of the drastic shortage of priests that the diocese was facing and the fact that he was told that Father Dutel was cured,” Fontana said in the sworn statement.

So with all that is known, the accusations would seem to merit a more detailed response from the Diocese of Lafayette.

Perhaps the diocese is working on that, but simply saying that a former bishop considered the allegations against Dutel and deemed them unfounded doesn’t seem sufficient, considering the troubled history of the Catholic Church in dealing with these issues.

The response of the diocese to media inquiries so far seems tantamount to a parent learning that a day care worker faced a sexual abuse allegation decades ago and then being assured that the worker’s old boss looked into situation and found no problems, though the new boss is not too sure of the details.

Very comforting.

Richard Burgess, The Advocate’s Acadiana bureau chief, covers Lafayette city-parish government. He can be reached at rburgess@theadvocate.com.