In 1972 the parents of two boys confronted the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe. He agreed to psychiatric treatment, according to his sworn statement, and no one told his superiors.

Two years later, according to other sworn statements, his bishop first heard of Gauthe's sexual activity with boys; two years after that, a monsignor was informed.

In 1983 Gauthe was suspended from his duties and confessed to molesting, since 1972, at least 35 boys from his parishes, many of them altar boys, according to a written statement given lawyers representing parents of some of the boys. Parishioners were not told the circumstances behind his suspension.

A year later the facts became public, forcing stunned families in this Roman Catholic Cajun community in and around Acadiana to confront a nightmare.

Dissension over the church's role has set neighbor against neighbor; some have recoiled from knowledge of the matter, and the community's weekly newspaper is running a lengthy and detailed series on the scandal in an effort, the editors wrote, to promote understanding and "help heal the wounds."

The church's central place in life here, where some villages are80 percent Catholic, and its inability to be both comforter and defendant, has complicated the great difficulties that attend any case involving the sexual abuse of children.

"I feel like my church has betrayed me," said Faye Gastal, whose family stopped going to Mass early last year, when she and her husband learned that one of their five children had been molested when he was 7 by Gauthe. "This is a disaster that nobody knows how to put the pieces back together."

The Roman Catholic Church has proven to be as vulnerable as any other institution to revelations about sexual abuse of children.

Last year a priest near Los Angeles confessed to sexually molesting at least 15 children. A priest in Portland, Ore., admitted to sexual involvement with altar boys and students over 15 to 20 years. Last January a priest in Boise, Idaho, pleaded guilty to lewd behavior with a minor and was found to have been dismissed from a hospital job in 1979 for "involvement with a dying youth on a dialysis machine." Other cases have been reported this year in Milwaukee, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Bristol, R.I.

Gauthe's case stands out not only because of the number of his victims but the extent of its potential financial fallout. Officials of the Lafayette diocese and its seven insurance companies, including Lloyd's of London, reportedly have agreed to out-of-court settlements totaling at least $4.2 million in damages to the families of nine victims in Vermilion Parish. Eleven additional civil damage suits are pending, with claims said to total more than $100 million.

Gauthe has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity to felony charges of sexually abusing children. His criminal trial, expected this fall, is expected to be the first of its kind involving a priest.

The independent newsweekly, National Catholic Reporter, included a special report last week on pedophilia among priests. Echoing the parents of some of the victims and others familiar with such cases, it charged that local bishops often have shown little concern for the victims, have disregarded parents' complaints, and have given priests the benefit of the doubt, sometimes merely assigning them to other parishes.

When asked why there was not more follow-up on complaints about Gauthe, one church official said in a sworn statement, "I am trained as a priest to forget sins."

But Russell Shaw, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "The official church feels nothing but the most grave concern about cases of this sort and the most profound compassion for victims. Even one case would be too many."

The National Conference lacks the authority to dictate policy to the dioceses, Shaw said, adding, "But I think that as public awareness of the problem has increased . . . . Sensitivity has grown among diocesan authorities."

In an attempt to avoid situations such as the one in Louisiana, dioceses in some states have developed official policies for immediate action on such complaints, he said.

Church officials said they have no evidence that the problem is widespread in the priesthood.

Gauthe is at a secular psychiatric facility in Connecticut under $250,000 bond, awaiting trial, according to District Attorney Nathan Stansbury. Gauthe's lawyer has entered an insanity plea. Under Louisiana law, the priest could face life in prison at hard labor if convicted of aggravated rape of a child under 12.

The priest, 40, was indicted in October on 11 counts of aggravated crimes against nature, 11 counts of committing sexually immoral acts with minors, one count of aggravated rape (sodomizing a boy under 12) and 11 counts of crimes of pornography involving juveniles.

In addition to sodomy and other acts -- committed in the confessional, in the sacristy, in his camper -- Gauthe has admitted taking hundreds of pornographic pictures of boys, and showing the youths pornographic videotapes.

To the boys, Gauthe was "a man before whom they saw their parents kneel . . . a man to whom parent and child alike confessed sins . . . a surrogate father and figure of consummate authority," wrote New Orleans journalist Jason Berry, whose four-part series on the case is being published by the weekly Times of Acadiana here, along with an editorial calling for a "true reconciliation between the diocese and its people."

The revelations have divided neighbor from neighbor in the close-knit rural parishes of Acadiana, the unofficial name for the Cajun community that lies in the state's southwest quandrant, across the Atchafalaya swamp from New Orleans. Thanks to the oil boom of the 1970s, Lafayette has become one of the nation's fastest growing cities. The tidy town is surrounded by farmlands, cane fields and rice paddies, and is shaded by trees draped with Spanish moss.

When the first lawsuits were filed in 1983, parents and church officials kept the matter quiet to protect the children, they said. A district court judge sealed the documents filed in the case.

The case burst into public view last summer when the Gastals split with other victims' parents over secrecy. They hired lawyer J. Minos Simon, who, more than a year after church officials had suspended Gauthe, appeared on television talk shows, charged the church with using its power in the community to attempt a cover-up and made court documents in the case available to the public.

Simon said he is searching for additional child victims of priests, in an effort to mount a class-action suit against the Roman Catholic Church on the grounds that it has known of homosexuality among priests and yet failed "to establish effective safeguard mechanisms" to prevent the abuse of children.

The Gastals and some of the other families say that they have lost their faith, and many friends, since they decided to call the church to account in the lawsuits. Some neighbors "don't want to face those that's seen the problem," said Glenn Gastal.

Last summer, families of victims who had agreed to settle out of court asked to meet with Bishop Gerard L. Frey to talk about the situation and receive counseling. Their request was denied. An attorney for the diocese subsequently wrote the weekly Times saying, "My clients are inhibited by contractual insurance arrangements to do nothing which might jeopardize the insurers' rights of defense."

The office of lawyer Bob F. Wright, representing diocesan officials, said that neither he nor his clients would comment on the case. Attorneys for the insurors also declined to comment.

In an official statement recently, Bishop Frey said: "From the beginning, I have reached out and offered assistance to those who have been harmed . . . . We should not be shaken in our faith."