US archbishop secretly backed bid to free priest convicted of raping baby

US archbishop secretly backed bid to free priest convicted of raping baby

As he reached the top of his 41-year life, Kevin Portier had endured baby rape by the hands of a southern Louisiana Catholic priest for whom he had served as an altar boy; a extremely publicized trial that despatched the clergyman to jail for the remainder of his days; and the trauma related to these experiences.

However one among Portier’s harshest ordeals got here inside his last two years alive. Representatives of the church that he had been raised to imagine in approached him at his house, at his job and at a relative’s funeral to ask him to lend his assist to efforts to safe an early launch for his rapist, Robert Melancon.

“I don’t know what the true deal is,” Portier wrote in a fall 2017 e mail in search of solutions from leaders of his native diocese, who didn’t understand till later that the individuals lobbying for Melancon’s launch had been really church officers about 60 miles away in New Orleans. “And [it] doesn’t matter. All that issues now’s I cannot be lied to by the Catholic church.”

It’s unclear whether or not Portier, earlier than his loss of life within the spring of 2019, ever realized precisely who was attempting to engineer an early launch from jail for Melancon. However data that the Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans has fought to maintain hidden present the town’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond – whereas not even being in control of him – furtively sanctioned authorized maneuvers that, if profitable, would have prematurely freed Melancon from what Portier thought of to be a simply punishment.

In the meantime, one of many attorneys who performed a key function within the marketing campaign to free Melancon, VM Wheeler III, would himself later be convicted of molesting a baby – an act of abuse that occurred years earlier than, however that was not reported to authorities till after he joined New Orleans’s Catholic clergy as a deacon.

An obituary photograph of Kevin Portier. {Photograph}: Offered

The data in query clarify that the trouble to free Melancon concerned overtures by associates of the archdiocese of New Orleans to the best ranges of presidency: to the warden of the jail the place the convicted rapist was incarcerated, to the director of Louisiana’s division of corrections, and to the state’s governor himself.

It introduced stress between New Orleans’ archdiocese and its smaller counterpart in Louisiana’s Houma-Thibodaux area, which administered the church the place Portier served and met Melancon. After studying an early launch for Melancon was a risk, the bishop of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese informed his New Orleans colleagues that he didn’t assist it, no matter arguments that the convicted rapist deserved it as a result of he was enfeebled on the time.

In the end, Melancon died in jail in November 2018 at age 82, as Portier had needed, earlier than his personal life ended about 18 months later.

Nonetheless, the saga of Portier’s ache vividly demonstrates how actions undertaken by the archdiocese of New Orleans in non-public usually don’t match its public pledges of empathy for survivors of its decades-old clerical abuse disaster.

The US’s second-oldest Catholic archdiocese, below Aymond’s management, declared chapter in 2020, saying it was essentially the most honest means for the group to make complete a whole lot of individuals abused by its clerics whereas permitting the church to proceed finishing up its supposed mission of sharing the gospel.

“The therapeutic of victims and survivors is most vital to me and to the church,” Aymond wrote in a letter to the roughly half-million Catholics within the New Orleans space shortly after the chapter submitting.

The archdiocese filed for chapter after paying $11.7m in out-of-court, abuse-related settlements throughout a 10-year interval starting in 2020. The continuing has now price the archdiocese practically $34m in authorized and different skilled charges; stays unresolved; and due to this fact has not but resulted in any compensation for these with pending abuse claims.

Information that lay out the efforts to free Melancon are usually not publicly accessible due to a secrecy order from a decide that took impact shortly after the archdiocese declared chapter. The Guardian obtained them by way of a regulation enforcement supply.

Different confidential data obtained and reported on by the Guardian have established that the archdiocese during the last a number of many years has gone to extremes to protect abusive clergymen so long as potential – together with the handful of ones convicted of or charged with crimes by authorities armed with subpoena powers that may pierce the church’s safety.

New Orleans church officers in a ready assertion maintained: “Archbishop Aymond had no function in requesting or advocating the division of corrections for the short-term launch of Robert Melancon for medical causes in accord with the division’s well being care coverage. Archbishop Aymond initially thought of permitting Melancon to be housed at [an archdiocesan-run nursing home named] Wynhoven below sure circumstances however finally determined in opposition to permitting Melancon to dwell in an archdiocesan facility.”

The data surrounding the trouble to free Melancon – briefly, if not completely – stopped in need of describing him as terminally ailing on the time. But the church’s assertion additionally sought to characterize a letter that Aymond despatched to Melancon expressing assist for an early launch as “a corporal work of mercy” according to the archbishop’s “pastoral ministry to a dying prisoner”.

Portier’s father, Wilson Portier, mentioned in a short interview that he was usually conscious there had as soon as been efforts to free his son’s rapist from his life sentence. But he mentioned he was shocked to be taught these had been carried out partly by one other convicted abuser – in addition to endorsed by Aymond, who wasn’t even technically Melancon’s boss.

“All people’s obtained a proper to a lawyer,” Wilson Portier mentioned of those that had backed an early launch for Melancon. “However they’ve obtained to dwell with their conscience that they knew – they already knew – he had abused anyone.”

‘Leaving it in God’s arms’

Portier pursued rape fees in opposition to Melancon at a time when many of the public couldn’t grasp that clergymen had been able to sexual abuse.

It was late June 1995 when police arrested Melancon on accusations that he had raped Portier for a number of years starting when he was eight, in about 1985. A number of extra years would move after Melancon’s arrest earlier than the 2002 Catholic clergy abuse scandal in Boston’s archdiocese opened the world’s eyes to monks and deacons who had been baby rapists – and their supervisors who enabled them.

Portier mentioned Melancon started raping him nearly instantly after he turned an altar boy at Annunziata church in Houma, Louisiana. Melancon was the pastor there. Portier was 18 and Melancon practically 60 when police made an arrest within the case.

An nameless donor posted a $500,000 bond for Melancon to be out of police custody whereas awaiting his trial. The trial occurred a couple of yr later, which is a comparatively quick turnaround in Louisiana’s usually sluggish felony justice system.

Native media protection captured the local weather that greeted Portier. Supporters of Melancon insinuated that he had been unfairly focused for political and spiritual persecution as a result of the native prime prosecutor’s father was Jewish.

By that point, the Houma-Thibodaux diocese had paid Portier $800,000 to settle litigation stemming from his abuse. It was not the church’s observe to pay that sort of sum if it believed somebody was mendacity. But Portier confronted accusations from protection attorneys that his solely motivation to return ahead in opposition to Melancon was greed.

In taking the witness stand in opposition to Melancon, Portier testified that he had gone forward with the felony trial regardless of having acquired his settlement as a result of he didn’t need his abuser to rape once more.

“I really feel I might have the peace of thoughts – the peace of thoughts that he received’t do that to anybody else,” Portier mentioned.

Portier’s testimony acquired a major increase from one other witness who testified that Melancon had recruited him to be an altar boy and molested him for a number of years. For that torment, the witness mentioned he obtained a $30,000 cost from Melancon’s superiors.

Very blown-out black-and-white image of older white man wearing either glasses or sunglasses.
Newspaper picture of convicted rapist and priest Robert Melancon in 1996. {Photograph}: Newspaper photograph

The jury listening to the case in opposition to Melancon deliberated fewer than two hours earlier than discovering him responsible of aggravated rape. Consequently, Melancon was handed a compulsory sentence of life imprisonment.

Although the jurors’ temporary deliberations recommended they strongly believed Portier, Melancon vehemently maintained his innocence. He informed the decide presiding over his sentencing: “Your honor, I’m harmless of those trumped-up fees which were introduced in opposition to me.”

He later wrote in gratitude to a school journalist who had penned a column expressing skepticism of Portier, highlighting some inconsistencies between his testimony in the course of the felony trial and the civil litigation. Melancon thanked Michael Heinroth, saying: “My religion within the justice system in addition to my religion in my church has nearly disappeared.”

Melancon additionally wrote that Heinroth’s favorable tackle his protection salvaged a minimum of a few of his flagging religion within the information media.

“I nonetheless have a troublesome time believing all that is actually occurring,” Melancon wrote to Heinroth, who acknowledges studying much more concerning the nature of the Catholic clergy abuse disaster since writing his scholar newspaper opinion piece difficult Portier’s credibility. “A younger man of questionable character … tells an outrageous allegation [about] me … and never solely the jury, however many others imagine it!”

Portier was way more reserved in his response to the decision in opposition to Melancon. He declined to debate his case in public, and his solely comment to the Louisiana newspaper the Advocate was: “I’m leaving it in God’s arms.”

‘No menace to public security’

Melancon had been imprisoned for greater than 20 years when the New Orleans legal professional VM Wheeler III despatched a letter, on 19 July 2016, to the warden of the Homer, Louisiana, correctional middle the place Portier’s convicted rapist was housed.

About two years later, the archdiocese of New Orleans ordained Wheeler as a deacon. Months earlier than his loss of life in April, Wheeler pleaded responsible to indecent habits with a juvenile after being accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy 20 years earlier.

A chubby, pasty older white man with large ears that curve and stick out at the top, mostly bald and with unkempt dark gray hair at his temples.
A mugshot of VM Wheeler III after he was accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy. {Photograph}: VM Wheeler III mug shot/Jefferson Parish sheriff’s workplace

All of that was nonetheless forward for Wheeler when he reached out on behalf of Melancon. At that second, he argued in favor of an early launch for the priest due to a brand new state jail coverage meant to learn sure infirm incarcerated individuals.

On the letterhead of the influential New Orleans regulation agency the place he labored on the time, Chaffe McCall, Wheeler listed Melancon’s varied maladies, together with hypertension, kind II diabetes, an enlarged prostate and coronary artery illness.

“We imagine that, given his medical situation, Melancon poses a low danger of hazard to himself or society and no menace to public security,” Wheeler wrote to the warden.

Including that the imprisoned clergyman was “completely and irreversibly wheelchair and mattress certain”, Wheeler mentioned the plan was to position Melancon in an archdiocesan-run assisted dwelling facility within the New Orleans suburb of Marrero if he had been granted a medical launch.

Wheeler wrote that Melancon wouldn’t be wherever close to any “websites of congregation for juveniles”, although a Catholic elementary faculty would have been a couple of half-mile away.

Every week later, the pastor of the Metairie, Louisiana, church the place Wheeler would later be assigned as a deacon wrote a letter to Aymond.

Andrew Taormina’s missive talked about the brand new state jail coverage, which may have led to an early, medical-related launch for Melancon. It talked about that the warden of the jail the place Melancon – Taormina’s former classmate – was being saved had already given encouraging information.

The warden, Jerry Goodwin, “has expressed his opinion that Bobby will qualify for this short-term (and maybe everlasting) launch to a nursing facility”, Taormina wrote to Aymond. To offer him the perfect shot potential, Taormina added, Aymond would want to approve the plan to maneuver Melancon into the Marrero nursing house, colloquially often called Wynhoven.

Old white man, big pointy hat
Gregory Aymond, the 14th archbishop of New Orleans, after his set up mass held within the St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans on 20 August 2009. {Photograph}: Judi Bottoni/AP

“We’re informed that issues may go in a short time for Bobby if he qualifies for ‘furlough’ launch,” Taormina wrote.

A stamp on Taormina’s letter exhibits Aymond’s workplace acquired it. Handwritten notes on the doc learn: “Will it’s introduced? … Will victims be notified? … Price who will take in?”

Initially of 2017, Taormina despatched one other pair of letters: one to Louisiana’s piously Catholic governor, John Bel Edwards, and one to his secretary of corrections.

Taormina’s letter to each argued that Melancon’s varied well being issues made him eligible for a minimum of a short lived medical furlough that he may spend at Wynhoven. The switch would each stop Melancon’s well being from persevering with to deteriorate in jail and save the state some cash because it grappled with a strained price range, Taormina wrote.

“We now have met with Archbishop Gregory Aymond, and he’s open to Father Melancon finally being housed at Wynhoven,” Taormina asserted in his letter to Edwards.

In his separate letter to the corrections secretary, James Le Blanc, Taormina mentioned he hoped to acquire letters of assist from the sheriffs and district attorneys of the parishes – Louisiana’s time period for counties – the place Portier had been abused and the place Wynhoven was situated.

In August of that very same yr, Melancon – whose priesthood had not been stripped from him – despatched a pair of handwritten notes on to Aymond.

One was to complain that the bishop to whom he reported, Houma-Thibodaux’s Shelton Fabre, had instructed him to cease celebrating mass in jail as a priest as a result of he was prohibited from doing so given his conviction.

Melancon – who on the time was purportedly bed-bound, if his supporters had been to be believed – didn’t admire being referred to as out for his plenty in jail. “This man rebukes me for answering God’s name,” Melancon wrote to Aymond. “All I did [was] feed God’s individuals with the bread of life. Nobody will take that pleasure from me – not even a bishop.”

Within the different notice to Aymond, which was dated just a few days earlier, Melancon mentioned he understood that Taormina was scheduled to have a gathering in Baton Rouge – Louisiana’s capital – about his attraction for an early launch from jail.

“I requested Our Woman to information them to make a optimistic resolution,” Melancon wrote, referring to the Virgin Mary. He added that he had heard “nothing” from Fabre’s diocese and complained that he felt as if he had been “tossed apart like a used sweet wrapper”.

Aymond despatched one reply to Melancon in between the dates of his notes.

“Pricey Bobby,” Aymond’s notice mentioned in greeting. “I be part of you within the prayer to Our Woman to information these relating to your attraction to make a optimistic resolution. We go away such issues within the arms of the Lord and pray for His compassion and for justice.

“I’m sorry that you just really feel tossed apart by some within the church. Be assured of my deep respect for you, appreciation on your a few years of ministry and on your life of religion that you just proceed to dwell now.”

‘I’m going to let it relaxation’

Whereas few Louisianans knew of the clandestine efforts by some within the church to assist Melancon win an early launch from jail, Portier realized of them by September 2017 as a result of a number of the disgraced clergyman’s supporters had personally approached him. Portier reported as a lot in emails to the Houma-Thibodaux diocese.

The emails collectively described a personal investigator displaying up at Portier’s house close to Houma – within the space the place he had been abused and the place he nonetheless lived – “with an outdated priest … from … New Orleans”. He additionally mentioned the church had someway discovered time “to ship attorneys” to intercept him at his house, at his job whereas he was on the clock, and as he attended his uncle’s funeral.

The guests had been “attempting to get the priest that raped me out of jail”, Portier wrote.

“I do know the outdated priest additionally went to the district legal professional’s workplace and requested them to file a petition for finish of life launch” for Melancon, Portier added.

Portier warned his native diocese: “Please … inform all of [your] authorized illustration that the subsequent time they present up at my house or household occasion I’ll press fees for harassment.”

An emailed reply from the Houma-Thibodaux diocese to Portier established that he quickly spoke with the native liaison for clergy abuse victims, who beforehand had labored in Aymond’s administration. The e-mail from the liaison – Carmelita Centanni – to Portier made clear “that the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux is just not concerned in any means in any effort to get Robert Melancon launched from jail”.

A burst of different written communication round that point exhibits that the Houma-Thibodaux bishop Fabre spoke with Aymond and wrote to Taormina, who turned 87 in July.

In a letter to Taormina, Fabre stopped in need of accusing him of being the “outdated priest” from New Orleans whom Portier described. Fabre additionally described being knowledgeable by a neighborhood journalist that each “an unnamed priest [and] unnamed bishop” had just lately gone to the native district legal professional “to discuss the potential for getting Robert Melancon launched from jail”.

However Fabre – who has since change into the archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky – additionally didn’t accuse Taormina of being the priest who visited the DA. He solely wrote: “In case you are not the priest referenced and you realize who [he] is, then I might admire figuring out his title in order that I can contact him and share my very critical considerations concerning the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux being perceived as collaborating on this effort in any method.”

The marketing campaign for Melancon to be free of jail fizzled on the market, by all indications.

Melancon has been accused of further sexual violence as just lately as August, when a lady filed a declare within the New Orleans archdiocese’s chapter case accusing him of abusing her when she was 13.

The girl, who’s in search of damages, mentioned Melancon fondled her genitals and compelled oral intercourse along with her on a number of events in his automotive whereas it was parked outdoors church buildings and down the road from a good, amongst different settings.

Her criticism mentioned her abuse started within the late Sixties, when Melancon reported to the New Orleans archdiocese as a result of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese had not but been based. The declare was filed previous a key chapter deadline, however the lady mentioned she hadn’t realized concerning the date till just lately. So she requested particular permission to pursue her declare, which stays unsettled.

Melancon died in jail of pure causes on 5 November 2018. Coincidentally, that was three days after Aymond revealed the primary model of an inventory of monks and deacons who had ministered in New Orleans and had been thought of credibly accused of kid molestation – a roster meant as a gesture of transparency and solidarity for abuse victims.

That listing didn’t title Melancon, although an identical one launched later by the Houma-Thibodaux diocese did.

Melancon’s loss of life introduced no closure to Portier, who by no means acquired an apology from his rapist.

“When a baby is harm like that, it by no means, ever goes away,” Portier informed The Instances of Houma/Thibodaux after Melancon’s loss of life. “It’s all the time there.

“I don’t know the way a person of God wouldn’t attempt to shut that, to go to his loss of life with out forgiveness.”

Moreover, these campaigning for Melancon’s launch had triggered Portier’s anxiousness over his rape in a serious means, his father mentioned.

“He was on edge on a regular basis that [Melancon] was going to get out and are available again and get him,” Wilson Portier mentioned. “His psychological state was all the time locking the home windows and ensuring the door was locked. He referred to as in the midst of the night time [worried] anyone was attempting to get into his home and stuff like that.”

Portier mentioned his son had tried to deal with his trauma by working with therapists. Kevin Portier was nonetheless in the midst of that battle when his father mentioned he died of a coronary heart assault on 23 March 2019, abandoning his dad and mom, his brother, his sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew to grieve.

Wilson Portier listened silently to a number of the supportive phrases Aymond, Taormina and Wheeler wrote on behalf of his son’s rapist. Requested if there was any response he needed to placed on the document, he replied: “Effectively, I obtained quite a bit to say about it however I’m not going to say something.”

Referring to his late son and the person who raped him, Wilson Portier mentioned: “I’m going to let it relaxation – as a result of they’re each useless, proper?”

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