Amid scandal, these Louisiana Catholics say priests ‘rock’
Like many Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans these days, Theresa Truxillo said she was alarmed when she learned Fr. Travis Clark had filmed a pornographic video involving himself and two women atop an atlar in his parish.
The scandal sent shockwaves through the local Catholic community. Clark was removed from ministry, and the altar he desecrated was burned and replaced. The church in which the act took place was reconsecrated. The news came shortly after Fr. Pat Wattigny, a former high school chaplain, came under suspicion for text messaging students, and was removed from ministry for admitting to the sexual abuse of a minor.
“That was just really shocking and upsetting,” Truxillo told CNA.
“My friends and I were just processing it, and I would say our initial reaction was disgust and anger.”
After the initial upset, however, Truxillo said her heart, and the hearts of her friends, turned toward the good priests and seminarians of their diocese, “because they do so much for us, and we became protective of them. We didn’t want the whole world to think that everybody was making those terrible choices, especially our clergy.”
They wanted to do something soon, and they wanted it to be something that would visibly show their support, Truxillo said.
Truxillo and her friend, Sheri Derbes, decided to organize a prayer rally of support outside Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, which took place on Saturday, Oct. 10.
“I was concerned that so much negativity was hovering over us,” she said.
“Sheri and I joked that it felt like a great cloud was hanging over our whole archdiocese, and it felt bad. And (the rally) was an opportunity to stand up and maybe turn that tide – not to forget or gloss over the tragedy that is happening in a few of our parishes, but also to recognize those priests and seminarians and our archbishop who are being good leaders and who are pure and who are probably really hurt by this scandal.”
Just 24 hours after the idea came about, about 200 Catholics showed up – socially distanced – to the prayer rally, praying together for their priests and seminarians, Truxillo said, and hoping to encourage them.
Everyone was asked to bring a small rock from their garden with a cross or other religious symbol drawn or painted on it. Participants held the rocks while they prayed the rosary and other prayers, and then left the rocks on the steps of the seminary, so that they could be distributed among the seminarians as physical reminders of the prayers offered for them.
“We very specifically prayed for our seminarians and our priests and our archbishop, who we believe are the successors of Peter, who Jesus built his Church on,” Truxillo said.
Fr. James Wehner, rector of Notre Dame Seminary, told CNA that Truxillo had asked him for permission for the prayer rally, and he told the seminarians to expect “three or four people” to show up on Saturday to pray the rosary. Then he left for a parish mission for the day.
“I came back and there were over 160 people…and I thought, what happened here? And I think word was getting around,” he said.
Wehner said he was “inspired” that this prayer rally was completely lay-initiated. He added that the seminary has held meetings about the recent scandals, to ensure that seminarians are receiving the best formation, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The seminarians were very humbled by the role of the laity in offering this spiritual support,” he said.
“I think in some sense, we preach to seminarians, so we’re embarrassed by this criminal, Satanic behavior of both of these priests,” Wehner added.
The rector said it’s been inspiring and humbling “to see people looking past that, to say, the faith of the Church, the faith of the priests, and the faith of Jesus Christ cannot be undermined by the power of evil.”
Wehner added that this year, Notre Dame Seminary has seen its highest enrollment in its 97-year history.
“So for me to see young men who should be very discouraged by the infidelity and the scandalous behavior of clergy, they look beyond that and still want to respond to God’s call…I’m inspired by their commitment to solid priestly formation.”
Truxillo and Derbes are both students of a lay program at the seminary, but since the pandemic struck in March, they have been unable to resume their regularl classes, or see their seminarian friends.
Coronavirus has been especially rough on seminarians, Truxillo said, because they live and study in the same place, and thus have been more restricted than most people during the pandemic.
“COVID has separated the seminarians specifically from the lay people because they live on campus and so they have been in a different lockdown than the rest of us,” Truxillo said.
“I’m allowed to go to the office now, I’m at least interacting with people. My children have gone back to school in person now – but they haven’t. And they commented to me that it was meaningful to know that we were there praying and to have just a small rock they could keep on their desk and remember that their vocation is valued and is important to the people. So that was really nice to hear.”
Jordan Haddad, the director of the lay programs at Notre Dame Seminary, told CNA that while he was not at the rally, he was grateful for the lay-led initiative.
The participants have a “deep love for our priests and recognize that the awful actions of a few do not in any way change who we are as a Church, and doesn’t change what our mission is. And it also doesn’t impugn the good reputation and the good work that the rest of our priests, deacons, our archbishop does on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
“We draw closer together to one another in difficult times like this, because we’re really hurting and suffering in the archdiocese right now by these scandals. And when one member suffers, we all suffer,” Haddad added.
Truxillo said one of the most moving parts of the prayer rally was when she noticed the parents of priests were there.
“When I saw the father of Father Steve, and then I saw Deacon Martin, whose son is Father Andrew, and I saw another lady whose son is a priest, I got a lump in my throat because I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, if I’m hurting, think about how these people must be hurting. They’ve given their son to God and to feel that attack must have really been heavy,’” she said.
Truxillo said there are other events being organized in the archdiocese in reparation for the recent scandals. A Mass of Reparation, advertised on the Notre Dame Seminary website, has been postponed, but is expected to take place soon.