He sits in the baroque 1840 room at Antoine's, a shaft of liquid sun steaming the brick alley outside. On the table on a red linen cloth sits a plate of oysters Rockefeller, and a half-eaten pompano, and an ashtray with 15 cigarette butts.

F. Raymond Mouton Jr. pushes back and sighs, deeply.

In the day, he was the wildest of defense lawyers in the oil boom capital of Lafayette, championing drunken roughnecks and a depressed mercenary, cocaine smugglers and black tenant farmers without much scratch. They paid him in piles of green cash, or barbecue, or golf balls.

Times were so fine that one soft summer night he fashioned a million-dollar check into a paper airplane and sent it loop-looping into the air.

Then came the phone call in 1984: Would he defend Gilbert Gauthe, the pedophile priest of Henry, La.? Mouton didn't hesitate, but please don't mistake his eagerness for idealism.

"There are just two reasons that I took that case, and two alone: vanity and money." Mouton's laugh is smoke-cured and humorless. "I had a high-visibility client and I knew the Catholic Church could pay like a damn slot machine."

Mouton, 55, rides through life with the top down. He's a Cajun Catholic, born and raised -- his daddy built the finest and grandest church in the Lafayette diocese. He was a star high school quarterback at Our Lady of Fatima, a fifth-generation Lafayette boy who in his sophomore year in college ran off to Mexico with the prettiest girl in his class and married her.

The Rev. Gauthe was the the first Catholic priest in the nation to face a criminal indictment on multiple charges of child molestation. If the church wanted Mouton to handle the case, he figured, together they could set it right.

He looks back on that decision, and on that life, as if through a distant lens. He was not a naive man in 1984, certainly not. But when it came to the church in which he'd grown up, he was as clueless as half the clients he represented.

"I honestly believed the church was a repository of goodness," Mouton says from his table in the French Quarter. "As it turns out, when I decided to take that case, I destroyed my life, my family, my faith. In just two or three years, I lost everything I held dear."

God and Dice Mouton looms as an important early figure in the history of the pedophilia plague that's ravaged the Catholic Church. He represented an abomination of a priest. And after that man was convicted and sentenced to prison, Mouton and two iconoclastic priests wrote a 1985 report that warned of what would befall the church if it did not heal itself.

If church leaders persisted in coverup rather than succoring the faithful, their report argued, the world's largest Christian institution would fall into a slough of financial and spiritual despair.

Influential church leaders seemed to embrace the report and its authors for a few months in 1985. Then, suddenly, the church barred its doors, casting Mouton into a wilderness of doubt.

"Ray saw this as a simple moral problem; he didn't realize he was sitting on a powder keg about to explode," says the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, who co-authored the report with Mouton. "He found a culture where it was okay for priests to screw little kids so long as no one rocked the boat. It shook the core of his faith."

Doyle catches himself. "It shook all our faiths."

It's a rare day now that Mouton drives back up Route 10 to Lafayette. He's a silver-haired novelist, with blue eyes and a boyish face and eyebrows that soar like flying buttresses. He keeps a cottage on Bourbon Street and an old stone house at the foot of a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. He is remarried.

Each summer he races with the bulls of Pamplona.

"Faith?" He smiles, a bit crookedly. "I have faith in God and fate, and voodoo and dice."

He is, in other words, many miles and many years removed from where this story begins, in a rural parish by the banks of Vermilion Bayou.

Unspeakable Acts The road to Henry is long and straight and lonely, and fringed by emerald rice paddies. The wind blows hot and sets sugar cane to swaying. Water lies flat on the horizon.

Somewhere to the south sits the Gulf of Mexico, which is slowly drowning this land.

The Rev. Gilbert Gauthe drove this way in 1977 to St. John's Church, in the French-speaking and deeply religious bayou hamlet of Henry. He'd already served junior ministries in Broussard, New Iberia and Abbeville, all in the Diocese of Lafayette. And at each stop parents accused him of molesting their young sons. (Early on, Gerard Frey, the bishop of Lafayette, advised complaining parents to send their children to confession to expatiate their sins. Later, diocesan officials pulled Gauthe out of a church and installed him as chaplain of the Boy Scouts.)

Now Gauthe would inherit his own church. He would ride dirt bikes and coach basketball, and charm the old Cajun ladies with his boyish ways. And in five years at St. John's, he would rape and sodomize dozens of local boys between the ages of 6 and 13.

In 1983, six families sued the diocese and Gauthe. But the courthouse crowd in Lafayette is a clubby set -- the church settled secretly and the judges sealed the papers. Gauthe was secretly moved to a treatment center in Massachusetts. "It was church hush money," recalls Kiefferd Gayneaux, who lives in Henry. "Families 'round here couldn't look each other in the eye."

Then a stubborn and balding bull of a Cajun lawyer, Minos Simon, filed a lawsuit in 1984 on behalf of another abused young boy, Scott Gaskall, and rejected the church's entreaties to hush it up. (Gaskall later got a million-dollar settlement.)

"Man, the whole damn thing was wrapped in a cocoon of secrecy." Simon is 81 years old, with a thin trace of a mustache and a fondness for quoting Rousseau. "The church knew damn well this dude had gone ape-wild down in Henry."

The publicity from that civil lawsuit prompted the Lafayette's district attorney to launch a criminal investigation. Church officials knew that Gauthe would need a lawyer. And Raymond "Coach" Blanco, a sleepy-eyed vice president at the University of Louisiana and longtime adviser to the Lafayette diocese, placed a call to a top local defense attorney.

Ray, Blanco asked, would you like to represent Gauthe?

Mouton laughed into the phone.

The outrageousness of the case suited him. Mouton favored white suits and two-tone shoes. His wife was purely gorgeous, their three children a joy. They had a mansion and seven-acre duck pond and plenty of cars -- a blue Mercedes was his personal favorite.

He was a hell of a lawyer. He could talk like no one. His conversational digressions were an art form. When he tried a big case he'd go a week without sleeping.

If the Drug Enforcement Administration sometimes monitored his phone calls, and undercover cops hid on the dirt roads near his backwoods Taj, well, hell, this was Ray's Larger Than Life life.

"A lawyer friend once advised me: 'Never mess yourself up convincing yourself that your client is innocent,' " Mouton recalls. "I figured I'd ride this case as hard as I could.

"What I didn't realize," Mouton adds, "was that the Vatican and the Church just wanted us to go away."

Face of Evil A storm tosses and bounces his airplane like a piece of balsa wood. It's autumn 1984 and Mouton rides a night flight to Massachusetts to meet his client Gauthe for the first time. The priest is in a psychiatric facility awaiting a formal criminal indictment charging that he molested 36 children in all.

Mouton pages through the Gauthe dossier. For the first time, he wonders if he's come face to face with pure evil. "Each child's story is a narrative of the most horrible acts," he recalls. "Nothing in my life has prepared me for meeting a Catholic priest who debased and destroyed children on the altar, in the confessional and everywhere else."

The next day Mouton found the 39-year-old priest sitting in a garden. He was a slight man, his hair combed neatly, his face blank. The banality was confounding. "Gil had no distinguishing features or characteristics, he was almost nondescript," Mouton says. "He was very well mannered."

Mouton handed Gauthe a school yearbook from Henry and the priest obediently paged through, pointing out children he had sodomized.

Later Mouton and Gauthe rode back to Louisiana for the priest's formal arraignment. There were death threats, and their return became an amphetamine choreography of high-speed midnight rides in police cruisers and dashes into freight elevators surrounded by officers with high-power rifles. Gauthe traveled disguised as a sheriff's deputy.

At the arraignment, the district attorney announced that he would seek a life sentence if Gauthe was convicted.

The strain on Mouton had become oppressive. There were threatening phone calls, and nights at work that stretched routinely into early morning. One day his wife, Janis, called to report that Chad, their younger son, had been beaten up at school because his daddy was "defending a pervert."

"It breaks my heart to remember what that time did to Ray, and to our family," says Janis. "We were raised Catholic, our children went to Catholic schools. I found it very hard even to go to Mass. I'd sit there in pews and wonder if the priest was a molester of children."

Diocesan officials were displeased that Mouton had advised Gauthe to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Such a defense would mean a trial. And a trial would mean that parents and children would testify. And that could lead some to ask why the bishops transferred a pedophile priest from parish to parish for a decade.

None of this would be good.

Whatever. Mouton came to realize something else, too. Gauthe was not the only one.

Nest of Pedophiles A man does not lose his faith with a cataclysmic thunderclap. Faith erodes slowly and ineluctably, and often against heroic resistance. So it was for Mouton and his Roman Catholic Church.

Janis and Ray sat and talked by their duck pond in late 1984. Ray couldn't figure out why the diocesan officials wanted to cut off his money and shut down his case. Janis looked at him as though he were a child.

"Ray, they're doing this because there isn't just one," she said. "It's the only thing that makes sense: The church knows there's a nest of pedophiles."

In the beginning, Mouton had the Gauthe case figured as pure Louisiana. "Everything is different in Louisiana from everywhere else," Mouton says now. "I thought Gauthe was sui generis."

Then he dug around and learned that the Louisiana diocese knew about seven more pedophile priests, and had done nothing. Mouton could not abide this. On a practical level, if word of more pedophiles surfaced, the district attorney could feel compelled to take a tougher line on Gauthe. And that would wreck Mouton's attempts to have Gauthe assigned to a prison where he would get psychiatric care.

Mouton flew to Washington to meet with the Rev. Michael Peterson, director of St. Luke Institute in Suitland, which specializes in treating mentally ill priests.

Peterson invited the Rev. Tom Doyle to join them. Doyle, a razor-sharp canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy, was charged by the ambassador with monitoring the Gauthe case.

Doyle had received credible reports of pedophile priests from dozens of dioceses around the nation. Their talk soon turned from Gauthe to the broader national problem.

"You had three radically different guys," Doyle recalls. "I was the church bureaucrat. Peterson was the former Mormon and psychiatrist. And Ray was this absolutely brilliant Cajun lawyer from crazy Louisiana.

"We came to share this urgency about confronting this problem because we knew it was about to get a lot worse."

They decided to write a report to the nation's bishops, to warn of a coming storm of lawsuits and lost faith. "I believed. I really believed that all the church had to do was act like the church and we could solve the problem," Mouton says. "I believed so hard I hurt."

Doyle worked his Vatican channels and within a few months the auxiliary bishop of Cleveland, A. James Quinn, flew to New Orleans to talk with the men about their ideas. Powerful and virile, a man who loves to sail and can tell a fine joke, Quinn seemed a priest from John Ford's casting room.

He came to Sunday dinner at the Mouton manse. "I thought I was standing in the presence of the true church," Mouton says. "He suggested composing the report as a question-and-answer format, and methodically addressing the concerns."

They wrote the first draft of the 92-page report during a marathon session in a Chicago hotel.

They drew on reports and medical articles, and filled the report with advice on screening and treating priests, and how to handle allegations of abuse. They suggested forming a rapid-response team that would travel to troubled dioceses and advise officials on strategy.

The men implored the church to make a new covenant with the faithful. The alternative, they warned, was a blizzard of lawsuits that could cost the church $1 billion.

"Every provision," Mouton says, "was grounded in the teachings of the church, whose principal mission on earth is healing."

Doyle sent a copy to the influential Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who had shown interest in their work. They later took a garden walk in Boston. "He was incredibly supportive," Doyle says. "He just kept saying, 'Do it, write more.' "

(During this time, Mouton settled the Gauthe case. In 1985, the district attorney agreed to settle for a guilty plea, a 20-year prison sentence and the promise of psychiatric treatment for Gauthe.)

Law promised, as did Quinn, to take up the report with the bishops. (Quinn and Law declined requests for interviews -- both Law and Quinn now face lawsuits by families who accuse them of covering up molestation by pedophile priests).

Word of the report on the church rippled through the serried ranks of the faithful.

Calls flooded in to Mouton and the two priests, from a diocese in North Carolina, another in Massachusetts, a third in Chicago: Help us. Please come and speak. And the mail began to arrive, letter after letter from pious Catholic families detailing the most terrible abuse of their children by men of the cloth.

Doyle and Mouton and Peterson were traveling nearly every week, often bouncing into small airports in Doyle's prop plane.

Then slowly, imperceptibly, a chill settled from the top of the Church. When Doyle traveled to Louisiana to meet with the bishop of New Orleans and the bishop of Lafayette, he inquired about abuse problems in their dioceses.

They assured him that all was now well.

What about Father -- -- ? Doyle said.

And Father -- -- ?

And Father -- -- ?

Doyle named seven predatory priests. Bishop Frey leaned back in his chair and fixed a stare on Doyle. Well, he said, you must have been talking to Raymond Mouton.

"I must say we didn't get the crisis," says Blanco. "Ray was like John the Baptist screaming in the wilderness."

Months later, the men traveled to Chicago, at the invitation of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

They'd expected 100 diocesan officials but the room was half empty. And the questions were unremittingly hostile.

In June 1985, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that it would establish its own committee on clergy sex abuse and that Doyle, Mouton and Peterson should immediately shut down their effort.

In a court deposition eight years later, a church official acknowledged that the conference, in fact, never established such a committee.

Mouton and his two priests were pushing more sunlight than a church hierarchy steeped in shadows was ready to let in. And worse was to come. The men heard that church officials were whispering, falsely, that Mouton had burglarized a chancery; that Peterson was gay; that Doyle had lost his way; and that talking publicly about abuse by clergymen would destroy the church.

"We always told ourselves we had nothing to fear, if the church acts like the church." Mouton does not conceal his disgust with his own naivete. "Looking back, with the perspective of 18 years, I realize the church was acting like the church."

The Fall The fall came hard, like tumbling down flight after flight of stairs. In 1986 Mouton came home to pick up a few more clothes, stuff some reports and papers into his suitcase, and rummage about for airplane tickets.

He showered, shaved and picked up a brush. He looked in the mirror and flinched.

"I no longer recognized myself. I hadn't slept in two weeks."

His subconscious was a jumble of images of molested children and predatory priests. He was a stranger to his wife, to his two sons and daughter. He worked frequently until dawn and had taken to drinking prodigiously so that sleep might find him.

Soon he would be diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive condition made far worse by stress.

"I had spent thousands of hours worrying about children and I lost track of my own," he says. "I had greatly overestimated my ability as a lawyer and my resources as a human being."

He and Janis soon separated. The house stood empty for years.

"Neither Janis nor I wanted the house," he says. "All the good memories had turned bad."

The Rev. Peterson's was a more primal struggle. He was dying of AIDS. When Mouton and Doyle visited their friend, he was covered with sores. A doctor advised them to wear gloves and to avoid contact. They lifted Peterson and held him against their bodies.

"It was very important that we could touch him and hold him," Doyle says. "He was our brother."

On his deathbed in April 1987, Peterson gave Mouton a Celtic cross: Mouton wears it still.

Doyle's once promising church career -- he was on the fast track to become a Vatican ambassador, if not bishop -- had come to an end. The Vatican Embassy dismissed him in 1986. He lost his teaching position at Catholic University. The church asked him to stop talking to the press, and to abandon his ministry to families of abuse victims. Doyle ignored them and continued to counsel families. He became an Air Force chaplain, in Indiana and later at an air base in Tully, Greenland.

It's his frozen Elba.

"From the moment I started writing that report I knew my career was finished," Doyle says. "The Vatican's grip on reality is tenuous and I didn't want to stay in that world.

"Spiritually, I am no longer a cleric. I am a Christian. My faith is between me and God."

Doyle called up Mouton in the winter of 1988. He had a copy of a letter that their former ally, Bishop Quinn, had written to Pio Laghi, the Vatican ambassador.

In the letter, Quinn complains to Laghi that Doyle and Mouton "continue to avail themselves to reporters" who are writing about clergy sex abuse. Their goal, he alleges, is to force the church to pay them as "expensive" troubleshooters.

"The Church has weathered worse attacks, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit," Quinn wrote in this letter. "So too will the pedophile annoyance eventually abate."

Mouton could scarcely muster a disgusted laugh. Disillusioned and worried about his illness, he was, at that moment, shutting down his law practice.

"I'd lost my wife, my career and my religious faith. I was quite literally lost."

Postscript 1: Gothic In the end, only one man in this saga had a guardian angel. That was Gilbert Gauthe.

Prison officials never shipped him to the psychiatric facility, as promised when he pleaded guilty. Instead, in the most curious of twists, Judge Henry Politz, head of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, intervened to keep Gauthe at the Wade Correctional Facility in northern Louisiana, on the Arkansas border.

Gauthe found extraordinary freedom at this prison. Ignoring the terms of his conviction, he never took Depo-Provera, a drug that blunts the sex drive. He was furloughed to visit his mother for weeks at a time. And he acquired a private prison office with glass walls, which he covered with oil paintings.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle, and subsequent state hearings, found that Gauthe took teenage prisoners as assistants. In his office he shaved their body hair and had sex with them.

Politz periodically visited Gauthe in prison. Gauthe, in a later deposition, described Politz as his "legal and moral counselor." The warden of Wade Correctional Facility was Richard Stadler, who described himself as a protege of Judge Politz. Stadler is now the secretary of the Louisiana prison system.

Politz, who died recently, attributed his extraordinary interventions and favors and acts of friendship to family ties. Politz's father and Gauthe's grandfather had sharecropped together in Napoleonville. When Politz's father died, Gauthe's grandfather had befriended his mother.

"It's as simple as that," Politz told the Houston Chronicle in 1998. Politz never testified before the state committee investigating the matter.

In 1995, aided by attorneys secured by Politz, Gauthe was set free, having served nine years of a 20-year sentence. "You explain to me how the most notorious criminal in Louisiana history is released without any supervision," Mouton says.

Gauthe moved to Polk County, Tex., where he was arrested two years later and charged with fondling the genitals of a 3-year-old boy. Gauthe showed up in court with free legal counsel, a woman who had served as a law clerk for Politz.

Gauthe was allowed to plead no contest to a reduced charge when Louisiana failed to forward his criminal records to Texas. Gauthe was sentenced to seven years of probation. In 1998, reporters spotted Gauthe sharing a table with Politz and Stadler at the Shreveport Petroleum Club. He took to counseling sexual offenders at a local prison.

The strange afterlife of this case would offer, too, a final moral test for Mouton. In 1998, a woman stepped forward and accused Gauthe of raping her 17 years earlier. The details of her account were hazy and contradictory, but no one much cared. At last Gauthe would be locked up forever. The Lafayette district attorney immediately indicted Gauthe.

There was just one problem: Years earlier, Mouton's plea bargain had barred prosecuting Gauthe for crimes committed before that date. The district attorney had since lost the document, and so Mouton was called to testify about its existence.

"If I lied, this monster was going away for life," Mouton said. "If I told the truth, he would go free and surely abuse again."

Victims held vigils. Friends and strangers alike called the lawyer, some begging, some crying. Who cares about old agreements? There's a common good.

Mouton could not lie. He testified that there was a plea bargain and a promise of immunity. But his mind was set afire.

"I did not sleep for two years," Mouton said. "You'd look and see these victims -- God, it was terrible. The only consistent thing about this story is that it always gets worse."

Gauthe reportedly works as a groundskeeper and lives in a distant suburb of Houston. He could not be located for comment.

Postscript 2 Even now, sitting in his cottage on Bourbon Street past midnight, beneath a dark oil painting of a bull and a crucifix, Mouton isn't sure how to draw the measure of his journey. He takes pride in the ferocity with which they fought their battle. But they lost.

The abuse continued, the numbers of children abused since 1985 staggering. Gauthe is free. The Lafayette bishop, Frey, has retired. And Law and Quinn remain powerful church leaders.

"I'm a football player," Mouton says. "The scoreboard shows we lost. We were right but we lost to these criminals."

Mouton's life is a happier matter. He is 15 years into his sobriety. He has remarried, to Melony, a woman who draws joy from his gales of thoughts and words and letters and books. She insisted he reconcile with Janis, and they now are fast friends.

He visits Lafayette only to bury family. He never lingers. And he never returned to the law. He's written an elegiac book about Pamplona and the running of the bulls, and he's hundreds of pages into a novel about the Gauthe case.

Faith is a more complicated matter. Mouton rediscovered God in his wanderings, although it's not the deity of chancery offices. "I believe now that faith in God is a gift we give to ourselves," he says.

His cigarette burns still as he steps outside his cottage. It's 2:30 a.m. and a humid mist clings to the iron latticework of Bourbon Street.

In a few days, he and Melony depart for the stone house in the Pyrenees. He will look up old friends and matadors. And he will run again with the bulls at Pamplona.

The challenge, he says, is to run "on the horns," a foot or two ahead of a galloping bull. To feel the breath of death, and know that he is alive.

The Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, shown here in a photograph from the '80s, once paged through a yearbook, pointing out to his lawyer the children he had abused.

In the beginning, Ray Mouton, above at his New Orleans home, had the Gauthe case figured as pure Louisiana. Gilbert Gauthe, the first Catholic priest in the nation to be charged with multiple counts of child molestation.The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy, was assigned by the Vatican ambassador to monitor the Gauthe case. From there, his attention turned to the broader national problem.Ray Mouton: "There are just two reasons that I took that case, and two alone: Vanity and money. I had a high-visibility client and I knew the Catholic Church could pay."