Gretna councilman says he’s victim of notorious clergy abuser at dramatic legislative hearing

New Orleans Advocate [New Orleans LA]

May 3, 2021

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

A Gretna City Council member revealed that he was sexually preyed on in grade school by one of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ most notorious clergy abusers when he appeared before Louisiana lawmakers Monday and made an impassioned plea that they give child molestation victims significantly more time to pursue damages.

The disclosure from Jackie Berthelot, 66, came during hours of testimony by abuse victims at a meeting of the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure. When testimony concluded, members advanced to the full House a bill that would give child sex abuse survivors until their 53rd birthday to file lawsuits regarding their abuse. Current law gives victims 25 years fewer — until their 28th birthday — to initiate litigation.

The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans. If ratified by the House, it would move to the Senate for consideration.

While the bill doesn’t exclusively apply to victims of clerical molestation, the Catholic Church’s ongoing child sex abuse scandal dominated the committee’s discussion. Berthelot’s allegations of abuse at the hands of Monsignor Lawrence Hecker, who is accused in an unresolved lawsuit of sexually molesting “countless” children, made for a particularly dramatic moment.

Berthelot said he was a fourth grader at St. Joseph School in Gretna in about 1963 when Hecker, a “charismatic” priest at the adjacent church, recruited him to become an altar boy. According to Berthelot, his mother was a devout Catholic who worked in St. Joseph’s cafeteria and participated in practically every activity that the church and school offered, so he signed up.

“Little did I know I was being reeled in by” a dangerous child molester, Berthelot said. He alleged that Hecker took advantage of Berthelot’s proximity and trust in him to sexually abuse him.

Berthelot — who was elected to his third four-year term on the Gretna council in January — said he waited decades to come forward about Hecker for a variety of reasons. Besides his mother’s devotion to St. Joseph, he had three brothers who went to school there. Late Baton Rouge Bishop Stanley Ott was also a paternal relative, Berthelot remarked.

“I identify as a Catholic still,” said Berthelot, who added that he raises money to fund scholarships for students to attend his high-school alma mater, Archbishop Shaw.

But the extent of Hecker’s damage eventually became known. A separate abuse allegation against Hecker prompted the archdiocese to remove him from ministry in 2002. However, the church didn’t alert the public about the reason for Hecker’s removal until November 2018, nine years after current Archbishop Gregory Aymond took office.

Aymond at the time had also released a list classifying Hecker and dozens of other priests who had been under the archdiocese’s command as credibly accused child molesters.

The abusive priest roster prompted a wave of additional molestation complaints against Hecker and other clergymen, which taken together were a major reason why the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May 2020. The bankruptcy filing indefinitely halted any pending clergy abuse lawsuits, including one against Hecker that accused him of having “countless” victims and turned up evidence that he had caused the archdiocese to pay out multiple molestation settlements.

Berthelot suggested it was only after all that — as well as counseling from two Baptist ministers — that he found the courage to speak out about Hecker, 89, who is still living and has previously denied wrongdoing. Berthelot said he’s proof why lawmakers should give molestation survivors more time to process what they’ve endured and head to the courts to be made whole.

“I (still) don’t understand some of the things that happened,” Berthelot said. “This is the thief that keeps on stealing.”

Hughes explained during the hearing that he chose the age of 53 because of research showing abuse victims’ average age of disclosure is 52 years old.

To avoid opposition from the insurance lobby, Hughes said he dropped language in the bill that would have made it retroactive while also opening a two-year window where all unresolved molestation claims — no matter how old — could be validly pursued in court. Others states have adopted such “lookback windows.”

Also speaking in support of Hughes’ bill were other clerical molestation survivors, abuse victims’ advocates, or both, including Richard WindmannKevin BourgeoisMark VathJames Adams, Jillian Edwards Coburn and Letitia Peyton.

Adams is the chairman of a committee representing the interests of creditors in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case. Berthelot is a member of that committee. Neither appeared Monday in their capacity as a committee member.

Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops director Tom Costanza submitted the lone card in opposition of Hughes’ bill but didn’t wish to speak at the hearing.