NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
July 15, 2023
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Inquiry ordered following Guardian investigation into retired priest who confessed decades ago to child molestation
A high-ranking federal official has ordered an investigation after the Guardian exposed how New Orleans’s Roman Catholic archdiocese went to extreme lengths to conceal a retired priest who confessed decades ago to child molestation, is still living and has never been prosecuted.
Yet the investigation recently ordered by federal judge Jane Triche Milazzo is not designed to aid efforts to criminally charge the cleric or hold the church administrators who hid his past accountable. Instead, the inquiry is aimed at determining whether anyone violated broad confidentiality rules governing the New Orleans archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy protection filing and related litigation before the Guardian’s report on 91-year-old Lawrence Hecker was published on 20 June.
Milazzo called for the investigation in question during a telephone conference on 30 June. The conference was alongside attorneys involved in an unresolved lawsuit accusing Hecker of sexually molesting a boy he met during his ministerial duties decades ago. The general public could not attend the conference, but a transcript of the session could be accessed on Friday at the New Orleans courthouse where Milazzo works.
“There is a rule in place that this information is to be held in confidence unless and until the court lifts any seal or makes a determination that it is not subject to a protective order,” Milazzo said in the conference, according to the transcript. “And I’m not going to tolerate any violation of those orders.”
Milazzo told attorneys involved in the case that it was “very frankly” her intent to appoint a prominent local lawyer named Kyle Schonekas to conduct the investigation. But that drew a swift objection from the attorneys for plaintiff Aaron Hebert, who wrote that Schonekas, earlier in the case, has represented “parties adverse” to their client as well as an archdiocesan deacon who died after pleading guilty to molesting a child before his ordination.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the archdiocese have since indicated that the organization “has no objection to the appointment of Mr Schonekas” but proposed possible alternatives to lead the investigation if he were deemed to have a conflict of interest. The alternatives suggested by the church were a former US attorney for New Orleans’s eastern federal district of Louisiana – Harry Rosenberg – and three ex-assistant US attorneys.
On Friday, Milazzo had not appointed anyone to lead the investigation.
Neither Hebert nor the archdiocese have objected to carrying out an investigation, though attorneys for the plaintiff have since argued that Milazzo could begin the inquiry without any special appointments yet. Both sides expressed concern about the time and cost that such an investigation would entail.
But at the conference Milazzo replied: “I cannot ignore a clear violation of an order of the court. I don’t know what else to say about that.”
The nascent investigation is the second of its kind since New Orleans’s 230-year-old archdiocese filed for federal bankruptcy protection in May 2020. The filing followed a wave of lawsuits related to the worldwide Catholic church’s clerical molestation scandal.
The prior investigation produced a $400,000 fine for a clerical abuse victims’ attorney, Richard Trahant.
Trahant – who is part of Hebert’s legal team – alerted a Catholic high school in New Orleans that a priest stationed there had previously admitted in secret to fondling and kissing a teenage girl during a previous work assignment. The priest, who has since died, was forced to retire, leading to news coverage that was unflattering for the archdiocese.
Neither Hebert nor anyone in his legal team provided the documents which the Guardian reviewed to report on how the archdiocese of New Orleans handled Hecker’s career. When reached for comment, Trahant asked the Guardian to not publish its report on Hecker because information in it remained sealed.
The report revealed how, in 1999, Hecker 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.
It also showed how archdiocesan leaders had Hecker 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.
Despite the worldwide church’s promises for transparency after the Boston scandal, 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. At that point, it included him in a list of clerics whom the organization considered to be credibly accused abusers.
Hecker has never been criminally charged, though Louisiana state prosecutors in New Orleans have said recently that they were actively investigating him.
The investigation came after another man came forward to authorities. He alleged to being choked unconscious and raped as a child by Hecker after meeting the priest through a Catholic institution.
During the 30 June telephone conference, Milazzo also addressed her choice to not recuse herself from Hebert’s case, as the plaintiff’s side had requested after the judge disclosed that she was a practicing Catholic who made weekly donations at mass to her local church.
“I have an obligation to handle cases that are allotted to me unless there is a reason to recuse,” said Milazzo, whose courthouse has seven other judges who have recused themselves from litigation involving the archdiocese of New Orleans because of various links to the Catholic church. “I do not find the … plaintiffs have any basis that would warrant recusal.”
Milazzo disclosed her Catholic background as she weighed a request from Hebert’s side to unseal documents pertaining to Hecker’s career. She had not ruled on that request on Friday.
Another judge – magistrate Donna Currault – recently barred the Guardian and the Associated Press from being able to argue in court in favor of Hebert’s request, essentially finding that the media organizations’ interests were adequately represented by the plaintiff’s attorneys.