Retired New Orleans Priest Likened in Court Docs to Notorious Boston Clerical Abuser
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
March 2, 2020
A trove of still-hidden church documents show a retired New Orleans priest was “a serial pedophile” who abused children for decades and was never reported to all relevant law enforcement authorities by Archdiocese of New Orleans officials, according to allegations in a court filing Monday by attorneys representing a person claiming to be one of the priest’s victims.
The filing in Orleans Parish Civil District Court is aimed at unsealing the documents as part of a lawsuit against the church and the Rev. Lawrence Hecker, who worked at more than a dozen churches across the area over four decades, including St. Frances Cabrini in New Orleans, St. Francis Xavier in Metairie and Christ the King in Terrytown.
Though the attorneys represent only one person claiming to have been abused by Hecker, the 14-page motion alleges that the documents in question — which the lawyers already have — show Hecker to be “a serial pedophile who has sexually abused countless children.”
While church leaders removed Hecker from ministry in 2002, the motion says the allegations against him weren’t publicly acknowledged until 2018 and have yet to be fully disclosed to law enforcement.
In arguing for unsealing the church documents, the attorneys compared Hecker’s case to that of the infamous former Massachusetts clergyman John Geoghan, who was accused of abusing 150 boys and was the focus of an explosive 2002 Boston Globe report which exposed how Boston’s archdiocese covered up for molester priests.
“A direct-line analogy can be drawn from this case to the Father John Geoghan cases in the Archdiocese of Boston,” the filing said. “The documents at issue will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a serial child predator … and absolutely failed to properly report his crimes to the appropriate authorities.”
The archdiocese hasn't filed a formal response to Monday's motion. A spokeswoman declined comment on the filing, citing a policy against discussing pending legal cases.
When Archbishop Gregory Aymond in November 2018 released a list of local clergymen, including Hecker, who had been credibly accused of child molestation, he said that the roster had been given to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and would be “made available to any other” prosecutors interested in it.
The request for the public release of the church documents comes from attorneys Richard Trahant, John Denenea and Soren Gisleson, who are representing alleged victims in several other cases against the church.
The same attorneys are also fighting to make public communications between the archdiocese and the New Orleans Saints, as part of a separate civil case involving Brignac. The Associated Press has also argued that those documents should be made public.
The plaintiff’s filing says Hecker was first identified publicly as a child molester in the 2018 release by Aymond, which came 12 years after the archdiocese was first notified of an allegation against him. But the motion insists that the mere listing fell short of fully conveying “the depth of Hecker’s disgusting crimes against children or the archdiocese’s equally disgusting suppression of those crimes.”
The motion also alleges that the sealed documents reveal Hecker broke federal laws barring travel across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual activity — violations that can carry stiff prison sentences. Such crimes have no statutes of limitation, the motion argues.
The motion notes that there is also a law criminalizing the failure to report federal felonies to the government, and it alleges church bureaucrats may have violated that law in their handling of Hecker.
Though the motion refers to a separate filing simultaneously lodged under seal, it does not include the source documents to back up the various allegations.
Nonetheless, the motion explicitly accuses Aymond and his predecessors — Philip Hannan, Francis Schulte and Alfred Hughes, a former Geoghan supervisor — of knowing Hecker had preyed on children and yet failed to report him to authorities.
Hannan left office in 1988. On the list of credibly accused clergy released in 2018, archdiocesan officials said they first received an allegation against Hecker in 1996.
Schulte was archbishop from 1989 to 2002, when Hughes took over until 2009. Hannan and Schulte died in 2011 and 2016, respectively.
The suit at the center of Monday’s motion comes from an unnamed man who says he was an underage student at St. Joseph School in Gretna in 1968 when Hecker fondled his genitals and those of other boys.
The plaintiff seeks damages from both Hecker and the local archdiocese.
The church turned over the documents mentioned in Monday’s motion to the plaintiff’s legal team during the discovery process, which began last year. But the church designated the documents as confidential and subject to a protective order.
Trahant, Denenea and Gisleson on Monday argued that the seal should be lifted because the documents contain information that could help the public protect itself from Hecker, 88, who still lives in the New Orleans area.
The attorneys contend there is legal precedent for the argument that disclosing information about public hazards trumps privacy concerns.
The archdiocese’s removal of Hecker from the ministry in 2002 occurred as the national scandal resulting from the Geoghan revelations reached a fever pitch. But a review of public records as well as archives of The Times-Picayune and the archdiocesan newspaper show the church continued maintaining ties with Hecker in later years.
A 2008 article in The Times-Picayune’s community news section invited readers to congratulate Hecker on the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination by writing to him at his home in an archdiocesan apartment complex in Marrero.
Seven months before the release of the abusive clergy list, the Clarion Herald archdiocesan newspaper listed Hecker as one of 49 retired priests who would benefit from a collection of donations meant to cover medical and retirement costs. That month, the archdiocese also highlighted the 60th anniversary of Hecker’s ordination, describing him as a “monsignor,” a distinguished title given to long-tenured priests.
Archdiocesan officials have previously said that removal from ministry is not an exile from the church, and they have cited a continuing obligation to pay priests what they are due under their pension plan.
A hearing on the suit targeting Hecker is set for March 20.