NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
July 6, 2023
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
A federal judge overseeing a request to unseal secret files related to a Roman Catholic priest – and self-confessed predator – won’t recuse herself from the case over donations to her church, as a clergy abuse claimant had asked.
New Orleans-based US district court judge Jane Triche Milazzo had been asked to recuse herself by Aaron Hebert, who is pressing a 2019 lawsuit asserting that the admitted clerical child abuser Lawrence Hecker had victimized him decades earlier.
Hebert and his legal team cited Milazzo’s disclosure during a 15 June court hearing that she made an unspecified amount of financial contributions to a church run by the archdiocese that employed Hecker and provided him with retirement benefits.
They contended that recusal was appropriate because the standard for such a move is whether “a disinterested, objective observer, armed with all of the surrounding facts, would have reason to doubt the judge’s impartiality”. They also referred to how seven other federal judges in New Orleans had recused themselves from handling litigation related to the Catholic clerical abuse crisis because of various connections to the archdiocese, associated institutions or the law firm representing it in its unresolved 2020 bankruptcy filing.
Attorneys for the archdiocese asked Milazzo to remain on the case, arguing in part that mere donations to an entity “is not the type of financial interest that mandates disqualification”.
Milazzo issued a minute entry on Wednesday in which she indicated she would not take herself off the case. She has not ruled on whether the church’s secret files on how it managed Hecker’s career should be publicly disseminated.
Hebert’s side has repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought that release. They’ve argued it is a matter of public safety an interest, which has drawn support from national media outlets and child advocacy groups.
The files pertaining to Hecker are under seal largely because of broad secrecy rules governing the church’s bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was opened in 2020 after a years long stream of lawsuits like Hebert’s and similar complaints which led to privately mediated financial settlements.
The Guardian obtained and recently reported on a portion of those Hecker-related records. They revealed how, in 1999, he confessed to his New Orleans archdiocese superiors that he had either molested or harassed numerous children whom he met through his work in prior years.
They also revealed how archdiocesan leaders had Hecker, now 91, undergo a psychiatric evaluation which found him to be a pedophile who should not be working with children or other vulnerable people. Still, the church let Hecker return to work after that evaluation until he was forced to retire in 2002 amid the fallout from the clerical abuse and cover-up scandal that consumed Boston’s Catholic archdiocese and later metastasized across the US.
The Boston controversy spurred the worldwide Catholic church to promise transparency over abusive priests and deacons to protect children and achieve justice for molestation victims. But the New Orleans archdiocese did not publicly inform a region with about a half-million Catholics that Hecker was a molester for another 16 years.
That disclosure contained no details about the volume or nature of the accusations against him or dozens of other local clerics whom New Orleans’s archdiocese considered to be credibly suspected child predators. Hecker has never been criminally charged, though state prosecutors in New Orleans have said recently that they are actively investigating him.
The investigation came after authorities spoke with a man who alleged being choked unconscious and raped as a child by Hecker after meeting the priest through a Catholic institution. That man had not been publicly identified.
- In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 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.