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In New Orleans, hope for justice seen in ex-deacon's arrest

A man who says he was raped by a Roman Catholic deacon four decades ago while serving as an altar boy in New Orleans says he hopes the deacon's arrest will "send a message to other pedophiles in the church that this should never happen again."

"There's no closing the book on this for me and the other people who have been molested," the man told The Associated Press. "But there would be some reparation, some justice, by him being found guilty."

The man spoke Thursday as he prepared to meet with local prosecutors about the case of George F. Brignac, a longtime schoolteacher and deacon who has faced a series of sexual abuse allegations amid a scandal that has roiled the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The AP does not usually identify victims of sex crimes.

Brignac, 84, was jailed Saturday on one count of first-degree rape, more than a year after the former altar boy told police that Brignac had repeatedly raped him beginning in the late 1970s. Police said the abuse began when the boy was 7 years old and continued until he was 11.

Brignac, who was released on $40,000 bail, declined to comment Thursday. He faces life in prison if convicted. His defense attorney did not return messages seeking comment. The arrest comes amid a new reckoning within the Catholic Church over how it handles clergy accused of sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has settled several lawsuits against Brignac, including one for more than $500,000, and included him among the more than 50 names it released last year of clergy removed from the ministry due to "credible accusations" of sexual abuse.

The archdiocese said in a statement that it continues to cooperate with law enforcement. "I want to publicly express our prayerful support of the victim in this case as this moves through the criminal justice system," Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in a statement to the Clarion Herald .

Advocates said they hope Brignac's arrest proves to be a harbinger of additional criminal cases against abusive clergy. There is no statute of limitations in Louisiana for child rape. "This arrest has signaled for the first time that the law enforcement in the city of New Orleans and district attorney are willing to get involved in these cases," said Richard Windmann, the Louisiana leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The former altar boy acknowledged the challenges prosecutors will face given how much time has passed since Brignac first befriended him in 1978. There is little physical evidence in the case, he said, aside from a collection of love notes and greeting cards he received from Brignac when he was a young boy.

"In the end, it's basically my word versus his," he said. "But I think I'm a much more credible person than he is." Under Louisiana law, prosecutors may also present the testimony of other Brignac accusers to the jury, said Prem Burns, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Baton Rouge. The New Orleans Police Department has collected contact information of several people who settled civil cases with the archdiocese over claims against Brignac.

"While these cases are difficult to try, there is a willing victim," Burns said. "It would be a very powerful case and might give further closure to the numerous victims whose compensation was financial."

Brignac was defrocked as a deacon in 1988 after a 7-year-old boy accused him of fondling him at a Christmas party. That accusation came on top of previous claims that he abused other boys, including one that led to his acquittal in 1978 on three counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile.

Still, he remained involved in the church as a lay minister and read the Gospel during Mass until last year, when news reports about his past prompted officials to remove him. The Associated Press reported this summer that Brignac maintained access to children and held leadership roles until last year in the Knights of Columbus, despite his written promise, more than three decades ago, to avoid young boys "for the good of the Church."

New Orleans police said in an arrest warrant that Brignac began grooming the altar boy in 1978, when Brignac taught math at Holy Rosary School and was a leader of the parish's altar boy program. He bought the boy "candy, cokes, ice cream and baseball cards on the way home from school," the warrant says, and took him to his home across Esplanade Avenue from the school. The warrant says Brignac raped the boy repeatedly at his home and at least once in City Park, warning him "not to tell anyone about the abuse."

The warrant also refers to several "disturbing" birthday and Christmas cards Brignac sent to the boy expressing his love for him, including one that says, "It is really hard for me to understand why you don't even acknowledge that I exist."

Detective Lawrence Jones wrote in the warrant that the abuse took "all the innocence from the young juvenile victim."

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