Times-Picayune, 3 TV stations seek unsealing of records on accused predator priest
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
March 9, 2020
|This Dec. 1, 2012 file photo shows a silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orleans.|
The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and the city’s three leading television news outlets filed a motion Monday asking a judge to publicly release court records detailing the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ handling of a retired priest who stands accused of being a serial child molester.
Attorneys for an alleged victim suing both the priest, Lawrence Hecker, and the archdiocese already have the documents in question, but the archdiocese has claimed the records are confidential and subject to a protective order preventing their release.
The media outlets’ motion argues that Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott should release the documents because they contain information that community members could use to protect themselves.
Noting that Louisiana has created a registry for convicted sex offenders, the outlets’ attorney, Scott Sternberg, said the state clearly prioritizes keeping the public informed about the perpetrators of such crimes.
While Hecker has never been convicted of a sex offense, he’s been accused in civil court of crimes for which he can still be prosecuted and punished. That fact warrants complete transparency about how the church has handled his case, Sternberg’s filing argues.
“This court is empowered to do its part to prevent additional abuse and promote transparency into the alleged sexual misconduct investigations at issue,” wrote Sternberg, who represents the newspaper, WWL-TV, WVUE-TV and WDSU-TV.
Sternberg’s filing said the public also has the right to learn exactly what the archdiocese knew about Hecker, when it acquired that knowledge, and what steps it took as a result.
The filing said the public has a constitutional right to access court records and that any information that is determined to be private — such as victims’ names — can be protected through redaction. Sternberg also said interest in the church’s ongoing clergy abuse scandal is “at its high point in New Orleans,” where an estimated 400,000 Catholics live in the local archdiocese.
The plaintiff’s lawyers have already requested that Ervin-Knott lift the seal on the documents, arguing that they contain information about crimes for which Hecker can still be punished as well as about a shameful, possibly criminal cover-up by church bureaucrats of the purported misconduct.
The plaintiff in the case at the center of Monday’s filing accuses Hecker of fondling the genitals of the plaintiff and other boys at St. Joseph School in Gretna in 1968. The plaintiff demands damages from both the archdiocese and Hecker, who is 88 and still lives in the New Orleans area.
The archdiocese removed Hecker from the ministry in 2002 because he was suspected of being a child molester. But church officials waited until 2018 to publicly acknowledge those suspicions.
The next hearing in the case is set for March 20. Ervin-Knott will hear arguments on the media outlets’ motion that day.
An archdiocesan spokeswoman declined comment on the new motion Monday.
The plaintiff’s attorneys represent alleged victims in several other lawsuits pending against the church. In a separate case, they are pushing — along with the Associated Press — to make public various communications between the archdiocese and executives of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. There has not yet been a ruling on that request.