Former Mascoutah priest pleads guilty to child porn distribution, meth possession
By Hana Muslic
November 12, 2019
A Mascoutah priest who was charged last year with possessing and distributing child pornography and possessing meth has pleaded guilty to both crimes.
Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger, a former associate pastor of Holy Childhood Catholic Church and school, entered his plea during a hearing in St. Clair County in front of Circuit Judge Zina Cruse on Nov. 7.
Hechenberger pleaded guilty to four of the 17 counts against him, including three counts of possessing pornographic photos of children and one count of possession of methamphetamine.
The case was handled by special prosecutor Jennifer Mudge, who stepped in to oversee the case when James Gomric was announced as the new St. Clair County State’s Attorney last year. Gomric was formerly Hechenberger’s attorney.
According to Mudge, Hechenberger faces up to 26 years in state prison. His sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 14, 2020, at the St. Clair County courthouse.
Hechenberger was arrested at Holy Childhood Church by Belleville police on Jan. 8, 2018. At the time, police said the investigation was initiated by a cyber tip from the organization Internet Crimes Against Children.
The police investigation required “multiple search warrants, online investigative techniques and surveillance details,” Belleville Police Lt. Todd Keilbach said at the time. Investigators seized multiple electronic devices and found drug paraphernalia, meth and several images and videos of child pornography.
Hechenberger was charged with eight counts of child pornography dissemination, seven counts of possessing pornographic photos of children and one count of possessing a pornographic video of children.
None of the children depicted in the child porn were local, according to the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office.
The Belleville Diocese released a statement on the day of Hechenberger’s arrest, saying the diocese had “no reason to believe that any parishioners were affected by this matter.” Later, Bishop Edward Braxton announced that Hechenberger had been stripped of his priest duties.
On Tuesday, Mascoutah’s Holy Childhood of Jesus School released a statement reiterating that all children at the school “have been and are safe and protected.”
“The former associate pastor never was charged with any act involving any youngster or any student at Holy Childhood School,” the statement said. “In fact, whenever he was at the school he always was with a class and with another adult.”
The school said it requires all volunteers to complete formal Child Protection Training and Annual Refresher courses and a background check with the state. A criminal investigation is required for all volunteers every four years.
Hechenberger’s original $2 million bail was reduced three weeks after his arrest and his sister posted his $25,000 bond on Jan. 26, 2018. Judge Randall Kelley, who oversaw Hechenberger’s arraignment, set certain conditions for Hechenberger’s release, including living at a specific residence, refraining from all contact with children 16 and younger, avoiding electronic devices with Internet access, submitting to drug and alcohol testing and abiding by a 5 p.m. curfew.
Hechenberger was also not allowed to make contact with parishioners from Holy Childhood Church, St. Pancratius Parish in Fayetteville and St. Liborius Parish in St. Libory. At the time of his arrest, Hechenberger was serving as associate pastor at all three.
In 2011, Hechenberger abruptly took a leave of absence from his position as pastor at St. John the Baptist Parish in Smithton. According to a letter from the Rev. John McEvilly, vicar general of the Belleville Dioscese, church officials said the leave was to address “very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges.” It is unclear what those legal challenges were.