By LEONARD GRAY – Managing Editor

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 28, 2004

RESERVE – Parishioners at St. Peter Catholic Church fondly recall the Rev. Patrick Sanders and many were shocked and outspoken in their belief in their former pastor, in the wake of sexual abuse allegations.

Sanders was removed from his Belle Chasse pulpit at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where he has served since 2001, according to the Rev. William Maestri speaking on behalf of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Maestri said allegations were made by two men who claimed Sanders sexually molested them as teenagers. Sanders has denied the allegations.

Karen Rylee, an employee at St. Peter’s, commented, “I’m behind Father Pat 100 percent. He did so much for everyone, of every age group. He brought people back to the church.”

This was echoed by Sherrie Millet, who expressed her anger at the Archdiocese, and insisted that Sanders was “thrown to the wolves” by church administrators.

“First of all, I don’t believe anything like that took place,” Millet said. “Second of all, you don’t put his name in the paper when no charges were made against him to the police.”

The alleged incidents were said to have occurred in 1993 when, as a priest of three years at Resurrection of Our Lord Church, he drove two teenage boys to an outing in Biloxi, Miss.

The archdiocese first heard of the allegations in February, Maestri said, and that person put them in touch with the second person In March. Each were interviewed in depth by the victims assistance coordinator and through church investigation channels until the matter reached the archdiocean review board on April 22.

As a result of their determinations, Archbishop Alfred Hughes relieved Sanders of his duties and placed him on administrative leave.

Civil authorities in Biloxi have also been notified, and a police investigation there has begun.

All this means little to Millet, who recalled, “Father Pat is a wonderful priest. We would look forward to mass on Saturday, just to hear his homilies.”

Darlene LaBranche, a former L’Observateur editor who worked with Sanders on the Monsignor Jean Eyraud project, commented, “Honestly, I don’t believe it. I worked too closely with him and I didn’t see any indication.”

LaBranche learned of the allegations Saturday directly from Sanders through an e-mail sent the day before, when he was leaving the rectory. “I was stunned, like I was hit in the stomach.”

LaBranche added that Sanders had helped revitalize the Eyraud project and pushed it hard toward the former priest’s present status as Servant of God, on his way to sainthood.

“He was very devoted to Monsignor’s cause, and it’s because of him how we’ve gotten as far as we have.”

Sanders was ordained in 1990 and started at St. Frances Cabrini in New Orleans. In 1993, he moved to Resurrection, in 1995 to St. Angela Merici in Metarie and in 1997 to St. Peter’s.

After serving four years in Reserve, Sanders was moved to Belle Chasse.

Millet concluded: “The archdiocese didn’t give Father Pat a chance. Now, he’s so distraught. It’s very sad and disturbing. A terrible injustice has been done to him.”

Sanders, given 24 hours to vacate the Belle Chasse rectory, is now staying with family.