Whitewashing History

Bishop Gerard Frey sure loved his 8 a.m. cup of coffee.

He could be a demanding boss, too, when he needed letters sent to other bishops or the wristband broke on his watch. Otherwise, he was sensitive, calm, remarkable, humble, strong, kind, gentle, unruffled, stable, understanding, cool and collected, extremely family-oriented, even and balanced and had a firm and sturdy character.

That's how The Daily Advertiser remembered Frey, who died last Thursday at the age of 93. In three successive days of coverage, The Advertiser wrote of Frey's long service to the Catholic Church and the Lafayette Roman Catholic Diocese, also highlighting noteworthy Frey accomplishments such as his extensive work with the Second Vatican Council and tenure as a pastor with churches in Houma, New Orleans and Taft.

The following section was buried deep in The Advertiser's first story on Frey's death:

"But Frey's time in the Lafayette Diocese also was marked by tragedy," the newspaper wrote. "He became the first bishop in the United States to deal with a sex abuse scandal in the 1980s, when former priest Gilbert Gauthé went to jail for molesting children in Lafayette Diocese churches where he served as a priest." The Advertiser then quoted a parishioner who remarked, "We were the first diocese hit by this. He had a rough time. What's right is right, no matter what. He did the right thing, no question."

Imagine how that statement must feel to the hundreds of innocent children molested by Gauthé and other priests during Frey's tenure. Imagine what the families whose lives were shattered by predatory priests and their superiors who looked the other way must have felt when they saw The Advertiser's multiple accounts lavishing praise on Frey.

For too many people, Frey's passing and The Advertiser's coverage provoked a terrible sense of déjà vu. When The Times of Acadiana first uncovered the scandal in the mid-80s under the leadership of current Independent Weekly publisher Steve May and late Times editor Richard Baudouin, devout Catholic Baudouin wrote a courageous, impassioned editorial calling on Frey to resign:

"We must insist on the principle of justice, that officials of the Church are not above the law, not above basic moral and ethical standards of the areas which they serve. The bishops of this country have seen fit to interject themselves into debates over abortion, nuclear war, economic policy and the like. With that adoption of a public agenda comes a responsibility to be accountable to the community at large.

"This newspaper, for one, will not stand silent at the outrages that have been perpetrated upon the people of this region. Children have suffered, families have been torn apart, the faith of the laity has been tested, and now even the accused priests have to endure punishment for their offenses. The bishop and his vicar general owe it to their church, yes to south Louisiana as a whole, to resign their positions immediately so that the process of healing within this community can take place. And if they refuse, we call upon the Vatican, through its official representative to the United States, Pio Laghi, to force action."

Frey refused to resign. What followed was a full-scale assault by the Catholic Church and The Daily Advertiser on the integrity of Baudouin and The Times. In a front-page editorial on June 16, 1985, The Advertiser wrote: "Now, will those who thrive on the misery of others permit the matter to rest, content to let the judicial system work, or will they turn it all into some extravaganza exploiting pornography while condemning the Catholic Church and all the priests who serve it? ... Let's offer a special prayer for the resolution of the affair that has rocked the Acadiana community and ask the forgiveness of any unscrupulous individuals who for one reason or another attempt to blacken the reputation of our entire religious community."

For the uninitiated, the massive cover-up and spinning of the scandal is detailed extensively in Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, journalist Jason Berry's definitive account of the church's widespread efforts in south Louisiana ' with The Advertiser as a willing sidekick ' to silence the discovery of pedophilia within its ranks. Perhaps no individual knows the extent of the crimes as much as F. Ray Mouton, the attorney who represented Gauthé and later worked with the canon lawyer for the Vatican Embassy, Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, and Rev. Michael Peterson, a priest and psychiatrist. The three men co-authored a manifesto delivered to ranking cardinals in the Vatican and every bishop in the U.S. Catholic Church that detailed the sickening national scope of pedophilia within the church.

"The very first criminal case and civil cases arose in Lafayette as a result of Bishop Frey moving Father Gauthé from church parish to church parish after Frey knew he was sexually abusing boys," says Mouton, who now lives in France. "The long list of crimes against very young innocent children were obvious, and not once did Frey notify the police. At one point, well after the bishop had knowledge of Father Gauthé having serially sexually abused a lot of boys, the bishop appointed him by letter to be chaplain of the Boy Scouts. This letter is part of one of his depositions, introduced into evidence. Had I not seen the letter with my own eyes I would never believe such a thing happened."

Frey's passing re-opened the wounds from the most painful chapter in Acadiana's history. Some believe that reliving Frey's role in that agonizing era is inappropriate and somehow speaks ill of the dead. But it's the media's duty to shine an unwavering light in the darkest of places, and in this case, I cannot think of a more terrifying example of philosopher George Santyana's words: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.