Retired New Orleans priest invokes rights against self-incrimination in molestation lawsuit
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
May 11, 2020
In a clear sign of concern about potential criminal charges, a retired New Orleans priest who is accused in a lawsuit of sexually molesting “countless” children invoked his constitutional rights against self-incrimination shortly before his deposition.
Lawrence Hecker, through his attorney, served notice March 13 — during the early days of New Orleans’ coronavirus pandemic — that he would essentially exercise his right to remain silent “from this point forward” in a lawsuit filed against him and the Archdiocese of New Orleans in April 2019, according to court records.
Hecker’s choice to avail himself of protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment cannot be used to cast doubts on any defense that he might present should authorities ever press a criminal case against him. But in the context of civil lawsuits, it is possible for judges and juries to infer evidence of wrongdoing from a defendant’s silence.
Hecker’s lawyer, criminal defense attorney Eugene Redmann, declined to elaborate Monday on the decision, announced three days before Hecker was scheduled to appear for a deposition that was later postponed. But legal commentator Donald “Chick” Foret, a former federal prosecutor, said he would advise the same stance for any client who was facing civil litigation laced with criminal allegations.
“My No. 1 priority is to prevent my client from ever going to jail,” said Foret, who’s also represented criminal defendants. “I’d much rather have a civil judgment against me than go to jail.”
There is no telling how the civil case against Hecker might be resolved. It was put on hold indefinitely when the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protections on May 1, citing the fiscal fallout from numerous clergy abuse lawsuits as well as the pandemic.
Nonetheless, many in the legal community are watching closely to see whether it eventually gives rise to a parallel criminal case against Hecker or even the church bureaucrats who supervised him.
The plaintiff contends Hecker was “a serial pedophile who abused countless children.” It also alleges that Hecker’s supervisors never turned him over to law enforcement authorities despite evidence that he committed crimes for which there is no statute of limitation and for which he could still be punished.
An attorney for the church on March 11 disclosed in open court that church officials first learned of a molestation allegation against Hecker in 1988, and that the archdiocese has since paid out at least four abuse settlements involving him. Yet it wasn’t until 2002 that Hecker retired from the ministry.
Transparency policies adopted by U.S. bishops that year should have resulted in Hecker’s prompt unmasking. But another 16 years passed before the archdiocese publicly acknowledged that Hecker, now 88, was a suspected molester. The acknowledgement came when church officials included him on a list of dozens of clergymen who had faced credible sex abuse allegations.
Meanwhile, because Hecker retired, the church continued providing him with the usual benefits granted to retired priests: hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension payments, insurance coverage, and – for at least a while – a church-owned apartment.
The church has long cited moral and legal obligations to provide such benefits, regardless of whether a retired priest was accused of misconduct. But the federal judge overseeing the church’s bankruptcy case last week ordered the church to stop paying priests who are credibly accused of abuse.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit filed last year accuses Hecker of fondling his genitals and those of other boys at St. Joseph School in Gretna in 1968. He asserts that the New Orleans archdiocese’s handling of Hecker amounts to a shameful and potentially illicit cover-up, drawing comparisons with the scandal that engulfed Boston’s archdiocese in 2002.
Hecker, who served at more than a dozen churches in the area, has denied the plaintiff’s claims in earlier filings.
An archdiocesan spokesman on Monday said, "Over the years the archdiocese has shared information with law enforcement concerning these issues. We have and will fully cooperate with any law enforcement investigations." The spokesman declined further comment because of the pending bankruptcy case.
The plaintiff's attorneys declined comment Monday, other than to say that no law enforcement agency has either requested their evidence or asked to interview their client.