New Orleans priest's abuse complaints started coming in 1988, led to 4 settlements: church lawyer
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
March 11, 2020
| This Dec. 1, 2012 file photo shows a silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orleans. |
Photo by Gerald Herbert
Alleged victim's attorney twice asked church lawyers if church was contemplating bankrupcty, didn't get answer
An attorney for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said Wednesday that the church learned of at least one abuse allegation against accused predatory priest Lawrence Hecker in 1988, or 14 years before he was removed from public ministry and three decades before archdiocesan officials informed the community that he was a suspected serial child molester.
The lawyer also revealed that the archdiocese has paid out financial settlements in four cases involving Hecker, who worked at more than a dozen Catholic churches in the New Orleans area over 44 years before his forced retirement in 2002.
The statements from archdiocesan attorney Dirk Wegmann came in what was supposed to be a routine status conference in a lawsuit filed by an alleged Hecker abuse victim before Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott. However, the proceeding was often far from routine.
At one point, Richard Trahant, a member of the plaintiff’s legal team, expressed fears that the church’s side was seeking a delay in proceedings because the archdiocese “is contemplating” filing bankruptcy.
Wegmann initially brushed off the remark. But he declined to answer when Trahant later explicitly asked if Wegmann would say whether the archdiocese is considering filing for bankruptcy, as several other Catholic dioceses across the country facing clergy abuse lawsuits have done.
After a few seconds of silence, Wegmann’s co-counsel Wayne Zeringue said, “I’m sorry, is there a motion?” The question was not explicitly answered.
Ervin-Knott at that point concluded the conference and asked all of the involved parties to reconvene on April 3 for what promises to be a marathon hearing on more than a dozen motions, including a motion filed by this newspaper and the city’s leading television stations to unseal certain documents.
Another surprise Wednesday was the presence of noted defense attorney Kyle Schonekas. He said he was representing an unnamed party with a significant interest in a motion under seal but declined to say who.
Wegmann, Zeringue and Trahant all declined comment outside the courtroom Wednesday.
The plaintiff in the case in question has accused Hecker of fondling his genitals and those of other boys at St. Joseph School in Gretna in 1968. The plaintiff demands damages from Hecker, 88, and the archdiocese, which he accuses of a shameful and potentially illegal cover-up of the abuse.
Hecker essentially was forced to retire in 2002 because he was suspected of being a molester. Under transparency guidelines that American Catholic bishops adopted that year, the church should have disclosed then why Hecker was no longer in the ministry.
Yet it wasn’t until November 2018 — in the face of continued calls for transparency about the scandal — that the archdiocese included Hecker on a roster of dozens of deacons and priests who had been credibly accused of child sex abuse.
Wednesday’s statements from Wegmann may suggest that the 1996 “allegation received” date for Hecker on that list was inaccurate. Wegmann at one point said Hecker had been both accused and removed from ministry in 1988.
Trahant replied that documents in his possession — but under seal — show it is incorrect to say Hecker had been removed from ministry in 1988.
Wegmann then apologized and said he had confused Hecker’s case with an unrelated one involving disgraced deacon George Brignac. Brignac is a suspected serial child abuser who was removed from the ministry in 1988 but, as his entry on the November 2018 list notes, has known allegations against him dating back to the late 1970s.
In any event, Wegmann’s comments about the four financial settlements involving Hecker provided new information about how many people may have accused the priest of abuse.
Wegmann’s unexpected remarks came as he defended the church from Trahant’s contention that some of the documents that the archdiocese had turned over had been improperly redacted. Trahant also accused the archdiocese of unduly delaying discovery responses.
At one point, during a discussion regarding redacted documents involving Hecker and other alleged abusers, Wegmann argued that redactions were related to attorney-client privilege as well as reasons required under canon law, or internal church law. And he invoked the four settlement agreements as examples of documents that needed to be redacted to protect the privacy of abuse victims.
Most, if not all, of the documents outlining what the church knew about Hecker, when it learned the information and how it responded are subject to a protective order, which means they cannot be filed into the public record except under seal.
But The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, WWL-TV, WVUE-TV and WDSU-TV have filed a motion asking Ervin-Knott to release the documents on grounds that they could contain information community members could use to protect themselves. The media outlets also argue that there is intense public interest in the archdiocese’s operation, especially in an area with roughly 400,000 Catholics.
Hecker still lives in the New Orleans area. Through his attorney, he has denied the plaintiff’s claims.
Trahant and his colleagues also represent alleged victims in several other lawsuits pending against the church.