The second-oldest archdiocese in the US has handed over “voluminous documents” involving a retired Roman Catholic priest – and accused serial predator – to the New Orleans district attorney’s office as prosecutors investigate an allegation that the cleric manhandled and raped a child decades earlier.
The district attorney, Jason Williams, revealed the archdiocese’s provision of the documents after a federal court hearing on Thursday centering on whether those materials should be more widely released as a matter of public safety and interest.
That argument was first advanced by a man named Aaron Hebert. In 2019, Hebert filed a lawsuit accusing priest Lawrence Hecker of molesting him decades earlier, when the plaintiff was a minor. The suit came as a years-long clerical abuse scandal continued metastasizing in the New Orleans area.
The judge evaluating Hebert’s request for wide dissemination of those records – which was joined by several entities, including the Guardian, the Associated Press and child safety advocacy groups – did not immediately issue a ruling following Thursday’s hearing.
Williams went to the hearing because his office had also lodged a motion contending that allowing his office to access the records – despite a court seal associated with the archdiocese’s unresolved 2020 bankruptcy case – would allow for a more complete law enforcement investigation into years-old allegations against Hecker.
Hecker, at 91 years old, has never been criminally charged. His attorney, Eugene Redmann, declined comment on Thursday other than to say he and Hecker would address any criminal charges if filed.
After Thursday’s hearing, Williams told reporters that late the previous day his office had received what appeared to be many of the Hecker-related documents which it was seeking. He would not say whether his office compelled the archdiocese to turn over the documents through a subpoena.
An attorney for Hebert, Richard Trahant, told the Guardian on Thursday that another client of his had reported to Williams’s office that, as a child decades earlier, he had been “choked out and raped” by Hecker after meeting him through a local Catholic institution.
Williams would not say for what alleged crime Hecker was being investigated but confirmed it was one without any deadline for which to file charges. In Louisiana, there are no such deadlines, or rather statutes of limitation, for cases of child rape, which can be punishable with life imprisonment.
“My sole focus is on whether there is evidence an adult preyed on a child,” Williams said. “That’s my job, and I am just doing my job.”
Hebert’s lawsuit maintains Hecker not only molested numerous children, including the plaintiff, but also accuses his supervisors of not immediately reporting him to law enforcement despite knowing he was an abuser.
The lawsuit alleges that Hecker, who was ordained in 1958, was treated similarly to how Boston’s Catholic archdiocese handled clergy abusers among its ranks before being exposed by a 2002 scandal. That scandal prompted global church reforms, including increased transparency.
After working various assignments within an archdiocese serving about a half-million Catholics, Hecker was allowed to retire in 2002. And it wasn’t until 2018, amid continuing fallout from the worldwide Catholic church’s decades-old clerical molestation scandal, that the New Orleans archdiocese publicly acknowledged that it believed him to be an abuser.
The archdiocese provided Hecker with retirement benefits until after it filed for federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 while faced with numerous clerical abuse lawsuits. The bankruptcy has indefinitely halted lawsuits involving New Orleans’s Catholic clergy abusers, though Hebert’s attorneys gained permission to depose Hecker.
It’s unclear whether any videos or transcripts of Hecker’s deposition were among the files turned over to Williams’s office on Wednesday.
FBI agents last year began investigating whether any Catholic church personnel in New Orleans over the years broke laws which prohibit crossing state lines with minors for the purpose of illegal sex acts. Hecker has since acknowledged that agents working on that investigation spoke with him last year, but federal authorities have not charged him.
Williams’s announcement on Thursday seems to suggest that state officials rather than federal ones are now leading the investigation into Hecker.
He said that attorneys general in states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland led investigations into dioceses in their jurisdiction, which have shown clergy sexual abuse was more widespread than church leaders initially led the public to believe.
Williams said that Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeff Landry, had refused to conduct a similar inquiry and questioned why that was.
Ramon Antonio Vargas
Published: 2023-06-15 21:56:40