Media organizations push for release of sealed records of US priest accused of abusing children

The Guardian [London, England]

June 7, 2023

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

The Guardian, the Associated Press and state prosecutors contend that there’s legitimate public interest in documents dealing with Lawrence Hecker

Two national US media organizations and Louisiana state prosecutors have joined efforts to secure the public release of sealed information that would provide a more complete account of a retired Roman Catholic priest in New Orleans who has been previously accused of molesting several children.

In papers filed late Wednesday at New Orleans’s federal courthouse, the Guardian and the Associated Press contend that there is a legitimate public interest in the contents of the documents dealing with Lawrence Hecker despite archdiocesan claims that the information could be disparaging to the organization.

The Guardian and AP argue that the records were improperly labeled as confidential after the church filed its pending, three-year-old bankruptcy case and are seeking to remove that designation, supporting arguments first advanced by Aaron Hebert, who in 2019 filed a lawsuit accusing Hecker of molesting him decades earlier, when the plaintiff was a child.

The archdiocese is the only entity which has opposed efforts by Hebert and his lawyers to unseal the Hecker-related records. Church attorneys have argued that neither the Guardian nor the AP have a right to become involved because the archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy filing for the most part indefinitely halted litigation against it.

“The archdiocese has consistently hid behind its bankruptcy case to keep the public from learning facts about abuse perpetrated at the hands of its priests,” said attorney Lori Mince, who is representing the Guardian and the AP. “We do not believe the law allows this.”

Wednesday’s filings by Mince and her associates note how similar arguments by the archdiocese failed last year when the church argued that an audit detailing possible financial crimes by a priest accused of abuse in a separate lawsuit should be shielded from public view.

The abuse lawsuit against the priest named in the audit was later voluntarily dismissed, as was a defamation case that the cleric had filed.

The church’s opposition to unsealing records related to Hecker comes even as New Orleans’s district attorney, Jason Williams, filed a legal brief Tuesday which urged federal judge Jane Triche Milazzo to publicly release the documents in question.

Hebert, who on Wednesday agreed to reveal his identity for the first time, and his lawyers have long maintained that the retired cleric committed crimes for which he can still be punished because they were severe enough that there is no deadline by which he needs to be charged. Williams’s brief said unsealing documents involving Hecker would allow “the appropriate authorities to investigate any criminal activity”.

“The continued sealing of the documents in this case serves as a major impediment to a proper investigation,” said Williams’s brief, which was filed within hours of the Guardian asking a DA’s spokesperson whether his office intended to take a position on the Hecker records-related dispute.

Williams separately provided the Guardian with a statement on Wednesday which mentioned how the records being sought included a sworn civil deposition Hecker made while facing questioning “concerning the commission of a crime”.

That, Williams said, “should not be withheld from a prosecutorial authority merely because reputations may be harmed”.

As New Orleans television station WWL reported, Williams’s filing was the first move from local law enforcement aimed at exposing records that the archdiocese has long fought to keep hidden, though some facts about the accusations against Hecker and the church’s reactions to them have been previously publicized by the media and archdiocesan officials themselves.

The lawsuit at the heart of the battle over access to Hecker’s records not only accuses him of abuse. But it also accuses his supervisors of not immediately reporting him to law enforcement despite knowing he was an abuser.

Hebert’s legal team asserts Hecker was treated in a similar manner to how Boston’s Catholic archdiocese handled its abusive clerics before a 2002 scandal engulfed it and prompted the worldwide church to implement transparency policies, among other reforms.

Court filings from Hecker have denied Hebert’s claims. Yet an attorney for New Orleans’s archdiocese at one point disclosed in open court that church officials had known as far back as the 1980s that Hecker was accused of child molestation, and they have paid out multiple civil financial settlements in cases involving claims against him.

Despite that history, the church allowed Hecker to work in the archdiocese until he retired in 2002. And despite transparency reforms that the church implemented the year he retired, it wasn’t until 2018 that the archdiocese publicly acknowledged that it believed Hecker to be a child molester.

The archdiocese provided Hecker with retirement benefits until after it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2020, when it was faced with a mound of clerical abuse lawsuits. The bankruptcy indefinitely paused lawsuits against Hecker and other accused clergy abusers, though attorneys for the 2019 plaintiff gained permission to depose Hecker.

Motions from Hebert, Williams, the Guardian and the AP now in front of Milazzo seek the release of the contents of that potentially explosive deposition – taken in late December 2020 – along with documents referenced during it to provide a fuller understanding of the case.

Milazzo is scheduled to hear arguments on 15 June at a courthouse where several other judges have recused themselves from handling litigation involving abuse and the archdiocese because of links shared by the region’s legal establishment and the Catholic church.

Hecker acknowledged last year that FBI agents had met with him amid a broader investigation into alleged sex abuse by Catholic church personnel in New Orleans. But he hasn’t been charged.

Hebert on Wednesday said the public deserves to know everything Hecker, who is in his 90s, has done. “I want justice to be done,” Hebert said. “When everything comes out, it will be a better day for all of us.”