NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
June 20, 2023
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
It wasn’t until similar abuse allegations came to light in Boston that Lawrence Hecker was quietly retired in 2002.
Three days after the Feast of All Saints in 1999, Lawrence Hecker confessed to his superiors at the archdiocese of New Orleans that he had either sexually molested or otherwise shared a bed with multiple teenagers whom he met through his work as a Roman Catholic priest.
The roughly 15-year period, beginning in the mid-1960s, during which the admitted conduct unfolded “was a time of great change in the world and in the church, and I succumbed to its zeitgeist”, Hecker said in a two-page statement which he gave to local church authorities serving a region with about a half-million Catholics. “It was a time when I neglected spiritual direction, confession and most daily prayer.”
Hecker’s admission – less than two months after he had been chosen to receive the honorary title of “monsignor” – followed the decision of one of his victims to come forward to the archdiocese. The organization responded by sending Hecker to an out-of-state psychiatric treatment facility which diagnosed him as a pedophile who rationalized, justified and took “little responsibility for his behavior”.
The facility also determined that Hecker – despite the vow of celibacy that Catholic clerics take – had previously engaged in a sexual encounter with a grown man who had an unspecified mental disability and to whom the priest was ministering. It recommended that the archdiocese prohibit Hecker from working with children, adolescents or other “particularly vulnerable” people.
Hecker, however, did not stop working until the church allowed him to retire in 2002. That year, the archdiocese of Boston had been exposed as having covered up the widespread sexual abuse of children by its clerics, setting off a scandal resulting in worldwide church reforms, including promises of transparency for the sake of protecting minors and attaining justice for molestation victims.
But when attorneys for the archdiocese – pressured by the controversy in Boston – reported Hecker alongside a handful of other clerics accused of abuse to New Orleans police, they only informed investigators about a single one of the cases cited in his confession. And they didn’t mention the confession itself at all.
Law enforcement authorities have never charged Hecker – now 91 years old – with a crime, even though the number of his accusers has only grown with the passage of time.
Despite openness policies that the Catholic church implemented after the 2002 scandal in Boston, New Orleans’s archdiocese did not publicly acknowledge that Hecker was a predator until 2018. That year, the archdiocese released a list of dozens of priests and deacons whom it considered to be strongly suspected of sexually abusing minors – including Hecker.
Citing a moral obligation it had to all clerics, the archdiocese waited until after it filed for federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 (in part because of litigation following the release of the clergy abuse list) to stop paying retirement benefits to Hecker and other abusive clerics. The judge overseeing the bankruptcy ordered it.
The most complete account yet of the shocking extremes to which the second-oldest Catholic archdiocese in the US went to coddle an admitted child molester is contained in hundreds of pages of secret church files reviewed by the Guardian.
Aaron Hebert filed a 2019 lawsuit for damages which accused Hecker of molesting him decades earlier, when he was a child. He has been pushing for the public release of records chronicling how the archdiocese handled the retired priest.
The archdiocese has so far managed to shield the records – and those of numerous other clerics that the church itself has concluded are abusive – from public view mainly because of broad confidentiality rules governing the 2020 bankruptcy filing.
The efforts to unseal those records by Hebert has drawn support from US national media outlets and non-profit child protection organizations, which argue that they are a matter of public interest and safety. A judge is weighing a ruling on the matter after a hearing last week.
Louisiana state prosecutors also filed a motion supporting Hebert’s efforts, saying that the records’ public release would allow for a proper criminal investigation. The New Orleans district attorney, Jason Williams, said the archdiocese has since turned over “voluminous documents” about Hecker to his office. But it’s unclear when – or if – charges may result.
The Guardian reviewed many Hecker-related documents through sources independent of Hebert, his legal team or the district attorney’s office.
The documents establish that New Orleans’s last four Catholic archbishops – the first of whom took office in the 1960s – had substantial reason to believe that Hecker was a child molester. Three stayed silent, and the current one waited several years before acknowledging that Hecker preyed on children.
Hecker’s lenient handling by the archdiocese of New Orleans contains striking similarities to the circumstances which thrust its Boston counterpart into scandal at the turn of this century. Among other consequences, the controversy in the Boston archdiocese cost its leader his job and led to prison time for the notorious serial clergy abuser John Geoghan, who was strangled and stomped to death by another incarcerated man while serving his punishment.
The archdiocese of New Orleans didn’t immediately respond to an offer to comment on Monday on its management of Hecker. Recently, in court, Dirk Wegmann, an attorney for the church, said the city’s current archbishop, Gregory Aymond, “is taking every step possible to protect children”.
Hecker’s criminal defense attorney, Eugene Redmann, told the Guardian any claims against Hecker were from “decades ago” and people in their 90s “lose a lot of memory”. But, Redmann said, “we will address any charges if they are brought”.
Reached by phone last week and asked for comment on his 1999 statement to the archdiocese, Hecker gasped, paused for several moments and said: “I am sorry – I am running behind on time and have to get to an appointment.”
He then hung up.
In the records reviewed by the Guardian, Hecker claims that he first realized it was wrong to fondle teenagers’ genitals, masturbate with them or be nude in their presence after international news outlets widely covered a 1984 indictment that charged the Catholic priest Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, Louisiana, with molesting more than 30 children.
Hecker, who was ordained in 1958 and worked at about a dozen churches mostly in south-eastern Louisiana, maintains that he believed he would have no problems as long as he avoided sex with women. He once told a psychiatrist he preferred boys “in part due to their naivete”, according to records.
But then Gauthe – who eventually pleaded guilty and served 10 years in prison – forced him to realize his behavior was problematic, and Hecker resolved to never again “be alone with children”, he said in the documents.
According to Hecker’s internal statement, the first time that he was directly confronted with accusations of pedophilia was in early 1988. At that time, the then archbishop, Philip Hannan, spoke to him about a woman who reported that her son claimed that he and Hecker “had had sex together”.
Hecker said Hannan, who died in 2011, spoke to him about the woman’s complaint at the time but didn’t elaborate.
Later, Hannan allowed Hecker to go on a sabbatical to take graduate classes in pastoral counseling at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City. The archdiocese and the church to which he was assigned before going on sabbatical helped him pay for his studies before he returned to his normal clerical duties in New Orleans, according to letters that Hecker and his superiors exchanged around that time.
In 1996, a woman – it’s unclear if it’s a different one – went to the administration of Hannan’s successor as archbishop, Francis Schulte, and reported her suspicion that Hecker sexually abused at least one of her three sons. Two of her sons were altar servers at a church in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna where Hecker was pastor in the late 1960s.
Some sort of internal inquiry ensued. During that review, a high-ranking priest and archdiocesan administrator indicated to Schulte in a memo that while working at an abuse-plagued local orphanage between 1966 and 1970, he remembered a boy telling him “that he had gone swimming with father Hecker and some others boys” at a local health club and that he would make “physical contact in the nude” with them.
And according to that memo, the aide spoke with Hecker, who recounted sharing a bed with one boy and possibly even showering with him. The aide wrote that Hecker confirmed the nude swims with boys at the health club, a practice he stopped after a New Orleans police officer who specialized in investigating child abuse suggested that the priest “not be as physical with the kids”.
“He implies indiscretion that led to suspicion,” the Schulte aide wrote of Hecker in the memo.
Hecker defended himself in writing by saying: “The world of the mid-nineties is not the world of the mid-sixties. Then, all sorts of new ideas and practices were springing up, not only with drugs and sex but also with liturgy and prayer. Victorian formality was giving way to ‘touchy-feely’.”
The archdiocese concluded that there was not enough evidence to corroborate the woman’s claim that Hecker had been abusive to her sons, according to the documents.
In 1999, the archdiocese revisited the issue when a man contacted Schulte’s administration and reported being touched inappropriately by Hecker. The man claimed the touching took place when he was an altar boy at another New Orleans church where Hecker worked in the 1960s.
Another church review unfolded. This time, Hecker provided a statement confessing to misconduct with or sexual abuse of seven teenagers between about 1966 and 1979.
There were either “overtly sexual acts” or “affectionate … sex acts” with two of the individuals, according to the documents. One was a student at a since-closed New Orleans high school primarily for boys interested in the priesthood. The other was a member of a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) chapter with whom Hecker worked – his mother was the one who reported Hecker to Hannan in 1988.
In his confession, Hecker made it a point to note that the CYO member was “100% willing” and “was not a bit passive”. He also recounted how often the high school student wore “short gym shorts” around him.
Hecker, in the remaining cases, reported either fondling, mutual masturbation, nudity or bed sharing, including once on an overnight trip to a Texas amusement park.
“I had thought I had buried this part of my life and would only think about it to remind myself not to have anything like this happen again,” Hecker’s confession said in closing. “I have made it a point not to be alone with anyone under 18, and if possible not to be alone with anyone – and certainly not to hold anyone, except for a ‘holy hug’.”
Archdiocesan officials subsequently put Hecker on sabbatical and sent him to be evaluated at the Anodos Center, which was attached to the Saint John Vianney hospital in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. That behavorial health facility was renowned nationally for specializing in treating clergy and religious personnel.
Hecker complained about the Anodos staff’s demeanor, saying: “I felt more like a thing than a person to be evaluated.”
For its part, the clinic concluded that Hecker’s grasp on his sexuality and the impact his behavior inflicted on others was minimal. It also explicitly found him to be a pedophile and recommended against allowing him to minister to young people or work with emotionally vulnerable adults, especially because Hecker recounted masturbating another man to whom he brought food in the course of his ministry and whom the Anodos center described as “retarded”.
Hecker was also told to undergo counseling and to attend a four-month program named “ministry to ministers” in San Antonio meant to help him achieve personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth and renewal.
In May 2000, once Hecker completed the program, Schulte welcomed him back into the fold. The archbishop assigned Hecker to serve as assistant pastor of a church in the suburban New Orleans community of St Charles parish, whose congregants are of all ages.
He was also given a position in the archdiocese’s adult education program.
I want to thank you for your willingness to continue in active ministry in spite of some of the health problems you have experienced
Archbishop Francis Schulte to Lawrence Hecker in a letter
“I want to thank you … for your willingness to continue in active ministry in spite of some of the health problems you have experienced,” Schulte, who died in 2016, wrote to Hecker.
Among the letter’s listed carbon copy recipients were the current archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, and his counterpart in Mobile, Alabama, Thomas J Rodi. Aymond and Rodi at the time were both assigned to positions under Schulte which involved being briefed on cases such as Hecker’s.
Hecker’s ministerial comeback was destined to be relatively short-lived. He fell under scrutiny again after the Boston Globe began publishing a Pulitzer prize-winning series exposing its local archdiocese’s cover-up of widespread, historical clerical molestation in 2002.
Amid the fallout from the Globe’s coverage, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office published a report which found that the Boston archdiocese’s vicar for administration from 1990 to 1993, Alfred Hughes, helped “perpetuate a practice of utmost secrecy and confidentiality with respect to the problem” of clerical abuse in the city.
Specifically, after prosecutors obtained sexual abuse charges against an ultimately convicted Boston priest named John Hanlon, Hughes personally learned of a separate, uncharged allegation against that cleric, the attorney general’s office found. Yet, “Hughes … never disclosed this new information to law enforcement authorities,” according to the attorney general’s report.
Hughes by 2002 had been appointed to succeed Schulte as New Orleans’s archbishop. And, in that role, Hughes wrote to Hecker informing him that an archdiocesan board had reviewed the abuse claim which resulted in his being sent off to treatment. The board concluded that the allegation was credible.
While he could continue saying mass in private, Hecker would be removed from the ministry and would no longer be allowed to wear his priestly garb in public, Hughes said in a letter.
Hughes allowed Hecker to retire in March 2002. The reason for Hecker’s retirement was not publicly announced despite the worldwide church’s promises to be transparent after the Boston scandal, and newspaper clippings show he officiated a wedding in April 2002.
Attorneys for the Hughes-led archdiocese reported Hecker to local police at the end of that year in a written letter, along with a half-dozen other clerics. But the letter to police prepared by the archdiocese’s lawyers at the time mentioned only one of the seven individuals Hecker named in his confession.
The letter to the police did not mention that Hecker had confessed to sexual misconduct or abusive acts.
It’s unclear why the letter to police was so incomplete in regards to Hecker.
In a separate missive sent to local Catholics in 2002, Hughes said victims always had the right to alert civil authorities but claimed his administration could only report cases in which accusers released the church from confidentiality. However, it’s rarely inappropriate to report evidence of a crime in good faith, and in some settings it is illegal to fail to do so.
The continued secrecy around Hecker didn’t prevent additional accusers from coming forward. In 2005, the archdiocese received a letter from a woman whose ex-husband had described being fondled in his sleep as an altar boy on an overnight fishing trip by Hecker decades earlier.
Hecker’s response when confronted with that claim was that he “didn’t think masturbation while holding on to someone was a sin”, according to a memorandum which Hughes’s clerical director wrote to the archbishop. The memo also quoted Hecker as saying: “I thought I could beat the system.”
Sarcastically, the memo’s author said of Hecker: “Evidently, he did not go to the same seminary we went to,” referring to a kind of college which educates prospective priests.
The memo author also expressed a concern that “more accusers may come forward if this should get to the media”, especially because Hecker – aside from being a priest – spent years working with the archdiocese’s scouts program, in which children participate in outdoor activities and various educational programs.
Hecker was the director of the archdiocese’s scouts from 1966 to 1972, which coincides with the time period when his admitted acts of abuse or inappropriate contact took place.https://5644a0ec5f0ba0420053110a61ecbeec.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html
Notably, the Boy Scouts of America had their own separate, systemic sexual abuse and cover-up scandal that dominated news headlines for a time.
In 2008, Hecker’s misdeeds had still not been reported in the news media. What did appear in the media that year was a local community newspaper article which invited readers to congratulate Hecker on the 50th anniversary of his ordination by writing letters to him at his home in an archdiocesan apartment complex.
Hughes was succeeded as New Orleans’s archbishop by Aymond beginning in 2009. Within three years, at least another two people accusing Hecker of child molestation had come forward.
In connection with one of those complaints, an aide of Aymond with the title of victims assistance coordinator wrote a memo to the archbishop which noted – without elaborating – that Hecker had “continued … perpetrating through 1997”.
That contradicted claims in his confession to the archdiocese and the records pertaining to his time at the Anados center that he had neither sexually abused nor been incelibate beyond the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the second of those accusers was a man who recalled being molested by Hecker in the 1960s while serving under him as an 11- or 12-year-old altar boy in Gretna, Louisiana. He wrote an email to Gretna police which said: “I carry this pain with me daily and I can’t get past it. I just want to be able to let someone know what happened back then.”
Can someone guide me? Is this something that I should just continue to bury and ignore?
An alleged victim of Lawrence Hecker in an email to police
The accuser added: “Can … someone guide me? Is this something that I should just continue to bury and ignore?”
Documents show that Gretna’s police chief told a fellow commander, “Let’s have a detective contact him next week.”
After more than a week passed, another commander at the Gretna police department forwarded the emailed complaint to Aymond’s victims assistance coordinator.
The coordinator reviewed the complaint, spoke with the man and wrote a memo to the archbishop which contained the line: “This is the NINTH allegation we have on record against Larry Hecker.”
The coordinator also later received an email from the accuser’s daughter, who asked several questions. The questions included how many children Hecker had molested, whether he had “admitted to his crimes”, when he had been first accused of abuse, whether he had at least been “reprimanded”, and whether he had “gone through any treatment”.
She also asked if Hecker had ever expressed feeling “remorseful”, whether he had ever been “charged criminally”, if he had access to children and whether it was anyone’s job to supervise him.
The last two questions were: “Why does the archdiocese still refer to him as ‘monsignor’?” and “was it [ever] publicly disclosed that Larry Hecker is a child molester”?
On Monday, the woman who wrote that email told the Guardian that she never got answers from the archdiocese to her questions. She also said she never heard about whether the police acted on her father’s accusation.
The woman said she recalled her father flew to New Orleans some weekend after she sent the email, and he “received restitution”.
Documents reviewed by the Guardian confirm that the archdiocese – as it had done with many other clerical abuse claimants – agreed to pay the woman’s father more than $37,000 to settle his allegation against Hecker privately and out of court.
In boilerplate legalese, the agreement states that neither the archdiocese nor Hecker “admit the substance of claimant’s allegations and assert certain other defenses, and claimant acknowledges that nothing herein is an admission of liability”.
Aymond and other archbishops across the US ultimately fell under pressure to come clean about abusive priests and deacons in their communities after a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed how Catholic clergy sexual abuse in the state was more widespread than church officials there had initially led the public to believe.
Around then, Aymond’s archdiocese also faced unflattering media coverage when it surfaced that a local deacon who had repeatedly been charged with child molestation was being allowed to read at mass.
In early November of that year, Aymond finally released a roster of clerics whom New Orleans’s archdiocese considered to be credibly accused child molesters that included Hecker.
At least one local Catholic wrote an email to the archdiocese within hours in which he described himself as “upset and confused” to see Hecker on the list. The email writer asked whether the abuse attributed to Hecker occurred while the priest worked at two churches where the parishioner’s family attended, and where his children as well as three brothers-in-law were altar servers.
“I do not know how to explain to my children how we would place them in such danger,” wrote the parishioner, who signed the email in closing as “a very concerned Catholic”.
More accusers came forward and filed a number of lawsuits alleging previously unreported claims of abuse by Hecker and others on the list, which generated a significant amount of news media coverage.
The archdiocese and some of the accusers settled out of court, including at least one 2019 Hecker claimant who received a $30,000 payment. The others which were unresolved were essentially halted indefinitely when the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2020. That also prompted a judicial order for the church to stop covering retirement benefits, insurance payments and living costs for Hecker as well as others who appeared on the clerical abuse list and were still alive.
The FBI has since launched an investigation into whether some Catholic church personnel in New Orleans can be prosecuted under human trafficking laws that prohibit taking anyone across state lines for illicit sex – and which have no filing deadlines.
Hecker, who retains his “monsignor” title, acknowledged to the Guardian that some law enforcement investigators had met with him last year. However, he said the investigators left when he told them he needed to speak with his attorney.
No law enforcement official has since charged Hecker. But Hebert’s attorney, Richard Trahant, has said that another client reported speaking to New Orleans state prosecutors about allegedly being choked unconscious and raped as a child by Hecker after meeting the priest through a Catholic institution.
On 14 June, New Orleans state prosecutors obtained files from the archdiocese on Hecker, according to the district attorney’s office in the city. A source with knowledge of the matter said the archdiocese turned the documents over after receiving a request for them from law enforcement.
Child rape cases in Louisiana have no filing deadlines, and they could carry life imprisonment. It remains unclear when or if Hecker will be charged.
In the meantime, documents reviewed by the Guardian show that a background check which the New Orleans archdiocese intermittently conducts on members of its clergy examines whether any of them have a local or federal criminal record or are registered sex offenders.
For Hecker, in each of those categories, as recently as 2017, the background check indicates: “No record.”