Former Lafayette priest kills himself after victims show up at his door in Virginia
RICHMOND, VA. — When it was found three days after Christmas, the small pickup truck was idling in a secluded spot at a shuttered rock-and-sand plant off a lonesome stretch of state Route 5 in Charles City County. A hose ran from the Mazda’s exhaust pipe through the passenger-side window, where it had been taped in place, according to a report by the Charles City Sheriff’s Office. A wallet and a journal with a 10-page suicide note were clearly visible on the dashboard.
The 62-year-old man lying dead inside was David Primeaux, a Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor respected by his colleagues in the university’s computer science department, where he had taught since 1996, and liked by his students, who offered glowing endorsements of his courses in online reviews.
Primeaux was also well-known for his advocacy of historic preservation in Petersburg, where he and his wife bought and renovated a historic home on West Washington Street nearly 13 years ago and where he served as a chairman and trustee of the Historic Petersburg Foundation.
His wife, Nancy, had called Petersburg police Dec. 27, a day earlier, telling them her husband had left the house, threatening to kill himself after receiving “some embarrassing news,” a Petersburg police report says.
A VCU spokeswoman later called Primeaux’s death a “shock” that was unaccompanied by any reports to the university administration that would have been cause for concern.
Indeed, what few people here could have known was that the story that ended in Charles City began 1,100 miles away in Lafayette, where Primeaux grew up and was ordained in 1975 as a Catholic priest.
Primeaux’s tenure there overlapped with a flood of sexual-abuse litigation against the Diocese of Lafayette that was launched before, during and after the 1985 conviction of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who was at the center of the first of the high-profile sexual-abuse scandals that would engulf the Catholic church in ensuing decades.
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Gauthe wasn’t alone. In 2004, the diocese acknowledged that 15 priests from 1950 to 2002 were the subject of substantiated sexual-abuse complaints involving 123 victims. Primeaux was one of them, the diocese says.
By 1985, the year he left the priesthood, Primeaux had admitted sexually abusing at least 15 adolescent boys as a deacon, parish priest and seminary teacher, according to psychological reports that were part of a lawsuit filed against the diocese in 1991 on behalf of a boy who was 12 when he said Primeaux began molesting him. And on the day before Primeaux committed suicide, a pair of old ghosts came knocking on his door.
Jarrell recalls former priest : The Diocese of Lafayette, where Primeaux spent the majority of his 10 years as a priest, did not respond to requests seeking interviews with current Lafayette Bishop Michael Jarrell and Monsignor H.A. Larroque, who was vicar general when Primeaux was a priest in the diocese.
However, Jarrell, who also worked directly with Primeaux when both were assigned to the same church parish from 1981 to 1982, remembered him in a written statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch as an “intelligent, affable priest: easy to get along with.”
“I did not see much of him in the parish because I was very busy and he was away most of the time,” Jarrell wrote. “I consider David Primeaux’s suicide to be a sad and tragic event. He was obviously a troubled man who harmed innocent victims. I pray that God may grant him eternal rest, and I pray that God may grant healing and peace to those he harmed.”
Jarrell did not respond to questions about why Primeaux’s name or the names of other priests who were the subject of substantiated sexual-abuse complaints were not made public. Jarrell also did not answer a request to list the status of those priests with the church.
“As was the practice at the time, the diocese provided counseling/assistance to the victims and families,” Jarrell wrote. “Because of the publicity given to the Gilbert Gauthe cases in 1985 and the outreach to the families, it was widely known that the church was there to help.”
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Anthony J. Fontana Jr., the lawyer who in 1991 sued Primeaux, the Diocese of Lafayette, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and other church officials on behalf of a boy who was the son of Primeaux’s secretary, also grew up with Primeaux in Abbeville.
“We were close friends,” said Fontana, 63. “He lived down the street from me. … We became altar boys together.”
When Primeaux was ordained in 1975, Fontana and his wife attended his first Mass, and when Primeaux later started working in the diocese, they would run into each other from time to time.
“He was a very educated guy, very smart,” Fontana said.
By the time Fontana had filed suit against Primeaux and the church, southwest Louisiana had been embroiled for years in the massive church sexual-abuse scandal that would lead to Gauthe’s criminal conviction and eventually cost the Diocese of Lafayette what it says was $26 million in legal claims as other priests were implicated.
Fontana also represented Gauthe victims in civil lawsuits.
Gauthe's pleaIn 1985, Gauthe pleaded guilty to 33 counts related to the molestation of 11 children at church parishes in the area. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, though he wound up serving about half of that sentence.
Ray Mouton, a former Lafayette lawyer who defended Gauthe and has since become a widely interviewed and fierce critic of how the church continues to handle clergy sexual abuse, said those numbers represent a fraction of Gauthe’s actual victims.
“Gauthe had abused boys at every church where he was assigned,” Mouton said, adding that church officials had known Gauthe was a predator since before he was ordained. “When I later learned of this, I believed the bishop belonged in jail with Gauthe, and today I believe every bishop who has once covered up the crime of a priest should be imprisoned.”
Local church officials repeatedly failed to take any meaningful action to prevent Gauthe and other priests from abusing children, said Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest who was a canon lawyer in the office of the Vatican nuncio, or ambassador, in Washington at the time and met with high-ranking church officials about how to handle the case.
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“They didn’t do anything about it until it all boiled over in 1983. They transferred him from one place to another, and he just kept abusing kids,” Doyle said. “My job was to just keep the file. … I was coordinating things from Washington for the papal delegate because he was reporting to the Vatican.”
Doyle called the revelations surrounding the Gauthe case “the beginning of the disclosure of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover-up by the bishops.”
Through their involvement in the Gauthe case, Doyle, Mouton and the Rev. Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who founded the St. Luke Institute to treat troubled clergy that is now located in Silver Spring, Md., learned that the diocese had received, and failed to act on, complaints of sexual abuse by numerous other priests, including Primeaux.
“As time went by, I realized there was a hell of a lot more to this than what we saw,” Doyle said. “The way the Lafayette Diocese handled things in the 1980s was they hid them.”
As the Gauthe case unfolded in the early 1980s, the cases against him mounted, said Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist who covered the Gauthe case and its fallout and compiled it in his book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”
In 1985, Doyle, Mouton and Peterson authored “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner,” which came to be known as “The Manual.”
The unsolicited report was intended to help the church confront what the three men foresaw as a “very serious problem developing,” and its recommendations were embraced by Canadian bishops but largely ignored and rejected by their American counterparts for years, said Doyle, who is still a member of the Dominican order but no longer operates in any traditional ministry.
His outspoken advocacy for victims around the world and criticism of the church’s hierarchy has landed him on the “fringes,” where he remains, he said.
“Which is just fine with me,” Doyle said.
Referred for counseling : Church officials had referred Primeaux for psychological counseling as early as 1980, according to documents Fontana obtained as part of his lawsuit. Officials eventually directed Primeaux to attend an inpatient program at the St. Luke Institute in May 1985.
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Edward Halie Shwery, the Metairie psychologist who examined Primeaux in late 1984 and early 1985, wrote that the examination was intended to form the basis for treatment recommendations and assessing “the impact upon his character structure from reported sexual abuse of children over a several-year period.”
Reached at his office in Louisiana last month, Shwery would not discuss the case nor acknowledge that he treated Primeaux.
However, his reports offer extensive detail on Primeaux’s admitted history of sexual abuse, including that of two eighth-grade boys when Primeaux was a deacon and associate pastor at a church in Lafayette; five students when he taught at St. Joseph Seminary near Covington; and later continuing at church parishes in the Lafayette area, where he acknowledged a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old son of his secretary; and seven altar boys ages 13 to 16.
“I found him to be very open in his disclosure of molestation of children,” Shwery wrote in a report. “Generally when we conduct such an examination of an alleged or confessed perpetrator of sexual victimization of children, it is unlikely that we obtain full disclosure of all instances of molestation.”
The reports and other documents indicate church officials knew about his propensities, because Primeaux said he was removed from the seminary, where he started teaching in 1978, after a little more than a year when several students reported him to the rector. He later told other priests in Lafayette that his transfer was the result of “problems of sexual molestation” and he was referred for counseling, a report says.
“David primarily was concerned with the embarrassment and difficulty explaining his removal prior to the end of the semester,” Shwery’s report says, calling Primeaux’s reaction a classic “character defense” for sex offenders. “There was abundant narcissistic concern with little or no empathy for the adolescent victims.”
Primeaux told Shwery his last sexual contact with a child was in the fall of 1983.
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Primeaux was to report to Peterson, the psychiatrist and founder of St. Luke, at the institute on May 20, 1985, according to another letter from Shwery to then-Lafayette Diocese Bishop Gerald Frey.
Richard Sipe, a former priest and mental health therapist who served on the board of St. Luke from 1986 to 1988, said the institute was founded ostensibly to serve as a treatment center for alcoholic priests. However, by 1985, Peterson had instituted a program specifically for priest sexual offenders and sexual problems.
“The bishops who essentially fund it and send priests there use it as a place to hide these guys until the heat blows over,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victim advocacy group and virulent critic of the church’s handling of sexual abuse by clergy.
A typical stay, Sipe said, was nine months to a year, and during his tenure on the board, the institute’s roughly 70 beds for sexual-abuse patients were always full, with a waiting list.
Sipe said the fact that the institute, which is still in operation today, depended on bishops for referrals and funding could skew the treatment.
Doyle said he was walking through St. Luke in 1985 during a visit with Peterson, who died in 1987, when Peterson pointed out a man seated at a piano.
“That’s David Primeaux,” Doyle said he was told.
Primeaux never returned to ministry or a diocese job.
According to the Diocese of Lafayette, he resigned from the priesthood on June 1, 1985, just a couple of weeks after he was supposed to present himself at St. Luke. It’s unclear if he completed the treatment program.
By 1993, Primeaux was an assistant professor at what was then the Troy State University campus in Montgomery, Ala., and three years later he was working at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The Times-Dispatch was not able to determine where he lived or worked from 1985 to 1993.
Confrontation : A Louisiana couple, who spoke to The Times-Dispatch on condition of anonymity, said they had sought to confront Primeaux for five years after the suicide of a friend who struggled with depression and substance abuse for years after being molested by Primeaux.
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After a flight to Richmond, the husband — now a successful southwest Louisiana businessman who said he also was molested by Primeaux when he was a Catholic school student — along with a relative of the friend who committed suicide knocked on the door of the Primeaux home.
It was Dec. 27, the day before Primeaux died.
“My husband and his friends carried this for a long time,” said the wife. “I’m sorry this happened. I’m not sorry they did something to heal themselves.”
Primeaux wasn’t home, but his wife was, the husband said.
He said the two men told her about Primeaux’s past as a priest, including the victims whose lives he had wrecked. They had brought a letter but weren’t able to get it into her hands, he said.
“She asked us to get off the porch,” he said.
Even so, they felt like they had accomplished what they came for and were stunned when they later found out that Primeaux had taken his own life.
“They were really just going to say, ‘Shame on you, look what happened,’” the Louisiana wife said. “No one thought this was how it was going to end. No one wished this on anybody.”
Nancy Primeaux refused to speak with a reporter who knocked on her door last month.
A family friend, Robert White, 70, who knew Primeaux as a neighbor and through the Historic Petersburg Foundation, said he was unaware of Primeaux’s past as a priest and didn’t care to dwell on it.
“I choose to remember him as I knew him,” White said in April. “I choose to remember him as an incredibly intelligent, gifted individual who did everything he could to better Petersburg.”
Data reveals littleClohessy, executive director of the SNAP group, estimates that there are thousands of priests like Primeaux who “quietly left the priesthood and went on to usually find positions where they had access to vulnerable kids or adults, or were helped by church officials to quietly leave the priesthood and get other jobs.”
According to data compiled by Bishopaccountability.org from reports commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 6,275 priests have been proven, admitted or “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors from 1950 to 2012, Clohessy said.
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“The real number is much, much higher,” he said.
Only a fraction have ever faced criminal charges — a result of prosecutorial reluctance, “archaic” statute-of-limitations laws and church leaders’ historic role in shielding problem priests, he said.
He and Doyle said until bishops are disciplined by the Vatican for covering up such cases, little will change.
In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and guidelines for “reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse,” according to the conference.
“Since the’70s and ’80s, the church and U.S. society have come a long way in understanding this sin and crime of child sexual abuse and in dealing with it,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the conference, wrote in an email. “Child sexual abuse by clerics is virtually nonexistent now given widespread programs of education and prevention.”
She did not respond to a question concerning instituting policies that would require disclosure of the names of credibly accused clergy.
Police in Petersburg said they were unaware of any criminal complaints against Primeaux. A VCU spokeswoman said the university had likewise not received any reports of any improper behavior.
However, part of what motivated one of his victims to seek him out in Virginia was regret over failing to report Primeaux decades ago and the worry that his silence might have allowed others to be victimized.
“He should have been shut down a long time ago but he wasn’t,” said the victim, now nearly 50. “I don’t think about it often, but the fact that my best friend from that time, and still today, he’s troubled about it. My other best friend is dead. … He was so troubled, not about what happened to him, but why didn’t we do the right thing back then? I told him, ‘It’s not on us as a 12- or-13-year-old to do the adults’ job.’”
That same apprehension can haunt victims for years, said Clohessy, who was sexually abused by a priest from age 11 to 16.
“Victims do heal and move forward,” he said, “but it’s very hard when the guy who molested you is still out there and you lay your head down at night and think, ‘What if he’s out there right now doing it to someone else?’”