'The whole truth': Bankruptcy judge urged to unseal records of alleged abusive New Orleans priest
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Times Picayune / New Orleans Advocate
July 10, 2020
|Federal Courthouse in New Orleans|
Attorneys for a man who alleges he was preyed upon by a New Orleans priest wants a federal bankruptcy judge to unseal reams of confidential documents outlining how the Archdiocese of New Orleans handled accusations against the cleric.
The plaintiff’s attorneys first asked an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge in early March to allow for the public release of those documents, and The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, along with WWL, WDSU and WVUE, joined in the request, arguing that the documents held information which community members could use to protect themselves from the still-living priest, Lawrence Hecker.
But the archdiocese’s decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections halted that push indefinitely, along with lawsuits from the plaintiff and dozens of others whose cases were automatically stayed and transferred from state court to federal court.
Late Thursday, the plaintiff’s legal team filed a motion requesting that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill, who’s presiding over the archdiocese’s reorganization filing, make the documents "immediately available to the public.”
“Knowing the whole truth without limitation is an important part” of clergy abuse survivors’ ability to retake “control of events that caused so much pain they have been forced to carry in silence for so long,” said the motion, prepared by attorneys Richard Trahant, John Denenea and Soren Gisleson, who represent dozens of clerical molestation claimants.
The motion acknowledges that bankruptcy judges can protect “scandalous or defamatory matter contained in any paper.”
Though information on priests accused of molestation may be “embarrassing” for the church, the motion argues, the plaintiff says that Grabill’s releasing the documents on Hecker would be appropriate because the content of the documents is true and relevant to the case.
Archdiocese attorney Mark Mintz late Friday filed a response opposing the motion, calling it an attempted "end run" around a protective order previously imposed by Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott. Among other things, Mintz argued it is Ervin-Knott who should decide whether the Hecker documents should stay sealed.
Grabill hasn't ruled on the plaintiff’s motion. Hearings in the bankruptcy cases are tentatively scheduled July 16 and Aug. 20.
In his lawsuit, the plaintiff — who is not named in the court filings — said Hecker fondled him and other boys at St. Joseph School in Gretna in 1968. Though Hecker was “a serial pedophile who abused countless children,” supervisors never turned him over to law enforcement authorities to be prosecuted for crimes that have no statute of limitation and for which he could still be punished, the plaintiff argues.
The plaintiff’s legal team says the evidence against Hecker lies in documents that the archdiocese handed over in the discovery process but which they marked confidential to place them under seal. Law enforcement could subpoena those documents from the plaintiff's lawyers, but they say that hasn't happened.
Hecker denied the plaintiff’s claims and skipped a scheduled deposition, saying he would simply invoke his right against self-incrimination. The claimant's lawyers asked that Hecker be held in contempt.
Before the bankruptcy filing stopped the case in its tracks, a church attorney 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. Though transparency policies which U.S. bishops had adopted by then appear to have required his immediate unmasking, it wasn’t until 16 years later that the archdiocese publicly acknowledged it suspected Hecker was a child molester when it listed him in a 2018 roster of dozens of clergymen who had faced credible sex abuse allegations.
Separately, the church continued providing him with the financial support usually given to retired priests, including money for living expenses.
Grabill ordered a stop to those payments after the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, claiming financial strain from litigating abuse cases as well as the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The request for Grabill to release the archdiocese’s records on Hecker was part of an objection to the church’s recent request of the judge to let it pay certain attorneys who had done work prior to the bankruptcy filing.
The plaintiff says the “conduct” of the attorneys — whose names are redacted — is “at issue” in separate filings under seal. Without elaborating, it alleges the attorneys are accused of helping the church cover up the truth about Hecker and other alleged clergy predators.
The plaintiff argues that unsealing the Hecker documents would let him share them with a committee of mostly clergy abuse survivors representing the interests of creditors in the archdiocese's bankruptcy case.
“Whatever the church was to pay these professionals would be better served paying sexual abuse claims,” the plaintiff said.