NEW ORLEANS (LA)
New York Times [New York NY]
September 7, 2023
By Ruth Graham
A state grand jury in Louisiana has indicted a retired Roman Catholic priest on multiple felony charges related to claims that he sexually assaulted a teenage boy in the 1970s. The long-sought charges come after public allegations that leaders in the Archdiocese of New Orleans knew about accusations against the priest for decades.
The retired priest, Lawrence Hecker, 91, faces charges of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated crime against nature and theft, the district attorney of New Orleans, Jason Williams, said in a news conference on Thursday.
“We’ve had to fight very vigorously through the courts and behind the scenes for disclosure of any and all information and evidence,” Mr. Williams said, referring to a “cone of silence” that often protects clergy members.
The charges come months after The Guardian reported that Mr. Hecker confessed to his superiors in the archdiocese in 1999 that he had either sexually molested or committed other acts of sexual misconduct against multiple teenagers in the 1960s and ’70s. In a recent interview on camera with The Guardian and the New Orleans news outlet WWL-TV, Mr. Hecker acknowledged the accuracy of the statement, in which he wrote that he had committed “overtly sexual acts” with at least three underage boys.
The Guardian reported that the last four archbishops in New Orleans had “substantial reason” to believe Mr. Hecker had abused children. Three stayed silent, and the current archbishop, Gregory Aymond, waited years before publicly acknowledging Mr. Hecker’s history.
Mr. Hecker’s attorney, Eugene Redmann, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.
Mr. Hecker retired as a priest in 2002, and the archdiocese did not publicly identify him as an accused predator until 2018, when it released a list of “credibly accused” priests in the archdiocese.
“Of all the pedophiles that the archdiocese hired and retained and concealed over these generations, Hecker is the one who’s emblematic of their failed practices and acts of self-preservation,” said Soren Gisleson, a lawyer for the alleged victim whose claims form the basis of the indictment.
“It wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t a one-off,” Mr. Gisleson said of Mr. Hecker’s alleged abuse. “It was chronic and sustained.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said the archdiocese had “reported Lawrence Hecker to law enforcement authorities in different jurisdictions multiples times since 2002,” and would continue to cooperate with law enforcement.
Another alleged victim of Mr. Hecker’s, Aaron Hebert, has spoken publicly about his claims that the priest abused him in the late 1960s when he was in eighth grade at an elementary school outside New Orleans. Mr. Hebert has said that Mr. Hecker took several school athletes into the church sacristy to demonstrate “what a hernia examination would be like” in high school sports settings. The priest told the boys to drop their pants and underwear, and fondled them, Mr. Hebert has said.
The New Orleans archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2020 amid a flood of sexual abuse claims against dozens of former priests and church employees. It is among about a dozen dioceses and archdioceses that are currently in bankruptcy proceedings.
The bankruptcy filing triggered a sweeping confidentiality order that kept secret thousands of church documents related to clergy abuse in New Orleans. Lawyers, media outlets, and advocates for victims have urged the courts to unseal the documents, saying their secrecy impedes a complete accounting of abuses committed by Mr. Hecker.
Thousands of Catholic priests have been accused of sexual misconduct over the course of the far-reaching sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic church, which exploded into public view in the early 2000s. But relatively few clergy members have been subject to criminal prosecution. Most of the accusations stem from events that took place decades ago, and many of the perpetrators have died or the statues of limitations have expired.