Church leaders never contacted victim New Orleans priest confessed to abusing

The Guardian [London, England]

June 21, 2023

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Keith Flores says he never heard from Catholic church superiors to whom the priest reported his transgressions in 1999

  • This article contains descriptions of child abuse

Keith Flores was surprised to learn that he was named in a statement in which a priest who once worked at his New Orleans school confessed to abusing children while on duty.

Flores said he never heard from any of the superiors to whom the priest, Lawrence Hecker, reported his transgressions in 1999.

As the Guardian first revealed on Tuesday, Hecker took a sabbatical, underwent a psychiatric evaluation which determined he was a pedophile who should not work around children, and was sent back to work before quietly retiring in 2002. These events all took place 16 years before the second oldest archdiocese in the US – under pressure from a metastasizing clerical abuse scandal – publicly admitted he was a predator.

“It’s disgusting,” Flores said in response to Tuesday’s revelations of how Hecker, a priest for whom he once was an altar server, was handled by his local archdiocese. “They should’ve done something – if they didn’t know how to do it, they should’ve gone to professionals who did know and could tell them how to do it.”

The archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian about the church’s management of Hecker.

The letter in which Flores is mentioned describes, in Hecker’s own words, how he molested or harassed seven teenagers between the mid-1960s and about 1980. Hecker’s statement explains how during the early part of that period, Flores was a parishioner at a church named St Theresa the Little Flower of the Child Jesus. The church was attached to St John Vianney prep school, where Flores studied.

Hecker’s statement explained how he spent four years as spiritual director at St John Vianney, which primarily educated teenage boys who were interested in becoming Catholic clerics.

The statement said Flores caught Hecker’s eye because he “looked somewhat weak but … was outgoing and very friendly” whenever he was around the church after classes.

“I probably held him close to me more than once, and I probably wrestled him to the floor of the sacristy more than once,” Hecker wrote of Flores, referring to the area of a church where priests prepare for mass.

Though Hecker said he did not touch Flores’s genitals, as he did to other boys named in the letter, he said: “I probably wrestled him to the floor of the sacristy more than once. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember Keith sort of enticing me, and I must have responded by holding him.”

Flores said Hecker’s statement that Flores enticed him was appalling. The priest also separately blamed another teen he described molesting for wearing “short gym shorts”, and claimed another of his self-identified victims was “100% willing”.

Flores recalled how Hecker would “try” to wrestle with him whenever he went into the sacristy to get the vestments they would wear for mass. “He would just come and start touching me,” said Flores, who lives in an area with about a half-million Catholics. “But I never wanted that man touching me.”

Flores said he “highly thought [Hecker] was trying to do more,” but recalled that Hecker stopped bothering him once he started avoiding being alone with Hecker upon reporting to altar server duty.

“I would bring my sister with me, and he never came around any more,” Flores said.

Hecker’s statement got him put on a months-long sabbatical and sent to a psychiatric treatment facility in Pennsylvania. The facility diagnosed him as a pedophile who rationalized, justified and took “little responsibility for his behavior”.

In a letter that he wrote announcing his sabbatical at the time to his congregation at Christ the King church in the New Orleans suburb of Terrytown, Hecker asserted that he was going on leave after experiencing vision problems and other age-related ailments.

“As a wise woman in whom I confided these difficulties told me, ‘You have to listen to your body’,” Hecker said. “I need to take some time off for further discernment and ministry planning.”

The psychiatric clinic also recommended that the archdiocese prohibit Hecker from working with children, adolescents, or any person who could be considered “particularly vulnerable”.

Secret church documents reviewed by the Guardian show that, after the sabbatical, the archdiocese let Hecker return to work as a priest at a church named St Charles Borromeo outside New Orleans, whose congregation includes people of all ages.

He was allowed to retire in 2002, when a Catholic clerical molestation and cover-up scandal consumed the archdiocese of Boston.

The controversy in Boston prompted promises from the worldwide church to be more transparent about Catholic clerical abuse. But the reason for Hecker’s retirement was not publicly revealed for years.

Under pressure from the events in Boston, the New Orleans archdiocese reported Hecker as well as certain other local clerics to police. Notably, they only alerted investigators to a single one of the cases cited in Hecker’s 1999 statement, and the confession that document contained wasn’t mentioned at all.

Hecker has never been charged criminally, even though more accusers have come forward as time has passed. The New Orleans archdiocese waited until 2018 to publicly acknowledge that it had reason to believe Hecker was a predator. That year, the church put Hecker on a list of dozens of priests and deacons whom it considered to be strongly suspected of sexually abusing minors.

Yet the information about Hecker on that list has at least one glaring omission. It does not mention that Hecker ever worked at St John Vianney or St Theresa, where he encountered Flores and the student whose gym shorts he remarked on in his statement.

Though the Guardian reviewed many church records related to Hecker, an unknown number of documents involving him and other abusive clerics remain confidential largely because of broad secrecy rules related to the New Orleans archdiocese’s unresolved 2020 bankruptcy filing.

A man relatively recently reported to New Orleans state prosecutors that he had allegedly been choked unconscious and raped as a child by Hecker after the victim met him through a Catholic institution. Law enforcement subsequently asked the archdiocese for records on Hecker, and the organization complied.

Child rape cases have no filing deadlines in Louisiana, but it’s been unclear when – or if – prosecutors might charge Hecker.

Flores said he hopes Hecker faces justice. “That already should’ve been taken care of before,” he said.

In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline at 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International