Exclusive: US archdiocese must submit clergy-abuse documents to police

The Guardian [London, England]

April 24, 2024

By Ramon Antonio Vargas in New Orleans and David Hammer of WWL

In criminal investigation, New Orleans judge demands paper trail from archbishop Gregory Aymond all the way to the Vatican

The criminal investigation into child sexual abuse in New Orleans’ Roman Catholic archdiocese has entered a major new phase, after a judge ordered the church to turn over records to Louisiana state police showing how it responded to abuse allegations over the last several decades.

The order signed Monday seeks files that would identify every priest and deacon accused of abusing children while working in the US’s second-oldest archdiocese; when those complaints were first made; and whether the church turned those cases over to police, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Significantly, police are also demanding copies of all communications among New Orleans’ current archbishop, Gregory Aymond, his aides and their superiors at the Vatican, those sources said.

Asked for comment Wednesday, an archdiocese spokesperson said: “As always, the archdiocese will continue to cooperate in all law enforcement investigations.”

It appears to be the first time that authorities investigating the New Orleans archdiocese’s role in the decades-old, worldwide Catholic clerical child abuse scandal have sought the full set of abuse-related documents in the local church’s possession.

In the rare cases where New Orleans-area clergymen have been convicted of – or even prosecuted for – child rape or molestation, investigators have generally focused on documents related to the individual defendants and their direct superiors.

Now, by essentially seeking the entire paper trail generated by the scandal, investigators could also learn what top church officials in Rome knew of the breadth of abuse at the local level in New Orleans.

It also introduces the possibility that authorities could one day produce a watershed report about the extent of Catholic clergy abuse in New Orleans as detailed as those published by prosecutors in states such as MassachusettsPennsylvania and Maryland.

Louisiana state police investigators sought Monday’s order from Judge Juana Lombard of New Orleans criminal court after reviewing documents, witness statements and other materials uncovered as part of a pending rape case they are helping local prosecutors pursue against retired priest Lawrence Hecker, the sources added.

Hecker was first confronted about rape allegations by the late archbishop Philip Hannan in 1988. He later admitted to past abuse to the Guardian and CBS affiliate WWL Louisiana while saying that Hannan had accepted his assurances that he wouldn’t do it again and allowed him to remain in ministry.

Hecker was later clinically diagnosed as a pedophile, according to secret church records obtained by the Guardian – and he admitted to church leaders in a 1999 written statement that he had molested or sexually harassed at least seven children. However, once again, the church allowed Hecker to remain in ministry, and he retired with full benefits in 2002.

Records obtained by the news outlets indicate the archdiocese reported a single allegation of sexual abuse against Hecker to the New Orleans police department in 2002, even though the alleged crime unfolded in another state, outside the agency’s jurisdiction.

The archdiocese did not notify the public that Hecker was a suspected abuser until it released a list of more than 50 credibly accused clergy in 2018.

That disclosure – which has since grown to include more than 70 names – didn’t mention the fact that Hecker had already admitted several crimes. And clerical abuse survivors as well as their advocates have long argued that the list omits dozens of clergymen who should be included.

Furthermore, the church didn’t cancel Hecker’s benefits until after it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020.

In a sworn statement provided Monday to Lombard, state troopers said their investigation into Hecker and the archdiocese’s management of him had led them to suspect the church knew of widespread abuse but failed to properly report it.

Some of that abuse appears to have involved clergymen who had committed acts of child abuse that remain prosecutable.

The warrant signed Monday, though, stops short of naming any archdiocesan bureaucrats who may be under criminal investigation for covering up child rape and other abuse by rank-and-file clergymen under the command of Aymond, New Orleans’ archbishop since 2009.

Hecker’s case is unresolved. The 92-year-old priest has been incarcerated for eight months on charges including rape and kidnapping.

A panel of psychiatrists recently issued a report that judged Hecker to be mentally incompetent to stand trial at the moment, though a judge has not immediately accepted or rejected that finding.

Nonetheless, state troopers obtained Monday’s warrant after Jason Williams, the New Orleans district attorney, said his office was committed to exploring the possibility of criminal charges against anyone who had a hand in delaying the prosecution against Hecker or any other clergy suspected of abuse.

Hecker’s alleged rape victim reported his allegations to his high school immediately in 1975 and received psychiatric treatment from the school, but the allegations were never reported to police, according to his attorney. He reported the allegations directly to the FBI in June 2022.

Earlier that year, the FBI in New Orleans launched a broad investigation into possible violations of federal law by the local archdiocese’s clergy who took children across state lines to have sex.

Federal prosecutors have so far not filed any charges in connection with that investigation. But state police troopers assisting the FBI in that investigation ultimately decided to pursue a state-level case against Hecker individually.

An attorney for the victim in the prosecution pending against Hecker on Wednesday said his client “was proud and humbled by the fact that his individual case led to the issuance of this wide-ranging search warrant”.

“It’s about time that those at the archdiocese who enabled Hecker and others like him are held accountable,” the victim’s lawyer, Richard Trahant, said.