A retired Catholic priest from New Orleans who years ago secretly admitted to church leaders that he sexually molested or harassed numerous children is now facing criminal charges.
State prosecutors in New Orleans obtained an indictment charging Lawrence Hecker, 91, on Thursday with aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated crime against nature and theft.
The crimes allegedly occurred at a church attached to a Catholic high school where Hecker worked in 1975, when the accuser was a 15- or 16-year-old child, according to the alleged victim’s civil attorney, Richard Trahant.
The accuser recalls that Hecker approached him under the guise of showing him a wrestling move, choked him unconscious, and “sodomized” him, Trahant said. Trahant said his client and the victim’s mother reported it to the school at the time, but nothing was done.
Hecker told WWL-TV on Thursday that he had no comment on the charges filed against him. New Orleans’s district attorney, Jason Williams, said at a press conference focused on the case against Hecker: “The fact that a child went to [his school] and told them what happened and nothing happened is a sin and a shame.
“We’re going to do everything we can in our power … many years after this prosecution should have been brought to try to find some sense of closure for this victim.”
In Louisiana, statutes of limitation do not prevent authorities from pursuing historical allegations of rape.
The charge against Hecker comes a little more than two months after the Guardian reported on a statement that he gave in 1999 to church leaders in which he acknowledged committing “overtly sexual acts” with multiple boys in the late 1960s and 1970s. Hecker also acknowledged having unusually close relationships with other boys stretching into the 1980s, but had not faced any substantial consequences until prosecutors in Williams’s office obtained Thursday’s indictment.
Just last month, the Guardian and Louisiana television news station WWL published an interview during which reporters for the outlets confronted Hecker about his 1999 statement. Hecker – while a video camera recorded him – twice said, “Yes”, when asked if he committed the specific sexual acts laid out in the statement.
It was the first time ever that he had admitted to such conduct while in a public setting.
During that interview, the Guardian and WWL asked Hecker directly if he ever choked or raped anyone. Hecker denied that he had.
Trahant said Thursday’s indictment results from a law enforcement investigation which began more than a year ago and required his client to submit to multiple interviews with authorities.
“It means everything,” Trahant said of his client’s reaction to the indictment against Hecker. “He’s endured this for years. He got to the point where he felt like, ‘No matter how many times I tell the story of the worst day of my life, nothing is going to be done about it.’”
Hecker’s case illustrates the extreme measures that the archdiocese of New Orleans took to hide the truth about him from a region with about half a million Catholics. Earlier in his career, reports of the misconduct to which Hecker eventually admitted led to a conversation in 1988 with the city’s archbishop at the time, the late Philip Hannan.
But, by the clergyman’s own telling, Hannan didn’t take any action against him, satisfied with Hecker’s assurances that he would never “be in any such circumstances” again.
After persistent reports against Hecker prompted his 1999 statement to church leaders, the archdiocese sent him to an out-of-state psychiatric treatment facility which diagnosed him as a pedophile. The facility recommended that the archdiocese prohibit Hecker from working with minors or other “particularly vulnerable” people, according to a secret church personnel file obtained by the Guardian.
However, Hecker’s career continued unabated for a few years. He was assigned to a church with an elementary school attached to it in 2000. He worked there until he was allowed to quietly retire in 2002, after a Catholic clerical molestation and cover-up scandal engulfed the archdiocese of Boston, prompting the worldwide church to adopt reforms and promise transparency.
Hecker’s retirement didn’t staunch abuse claims against him. Over a period of several years beginning in 2010, the archdiocese paid more than $332,000 to reach out-of-court settlements on five complaints alleging sexual abuse by Hecker. Those agreements were among more than 130 abuse-related settlements totaling $11.6m that the archdiocese paid out during those years.
Yet the New Orleans archdiocese did not inform its congregants that it strongly suspected Hecker had molested children until it released a 2018 list of priests and deacons who were considered credibly accused sexual predators. The archdiocese published that roster under pressure from the public to fulfill promises of transparency amid the lingering clerical abuse scandal.
Even then, the archdiocese refused to stop paying out Hecker’s retirement benefits until 2020. That year, the archdiocese filed for federal bankruptcy protection in large part due to abuse-related litigation, and the judge in charge of the proceeding ordered a halt to payments to credibly accused clergymen.
At least 15 claims for compensation that have since been filed as part of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case allege abuse by Hecker. The bankruptcy was still pending at the time Hecker’s charges were handed up by state grand jurors in New Orleans.
The archdiocese said it previously reported allegations against Hecker to law enforcement, but a letter to New Orleans police in 2002 only listed one allegation against Hecker and did not mention the priest’s 1999 confession.
At Thursday’s press briefing, Williams’s top assistant district attorney, Ned McGowan, said: “justice has been delayed and denied to the victims of Lawrence Hecker for decades.”
“He was hidden in plain sight,” McGowan said. “And today is the first step to imposing accountability.”
Trahant on Thursday said federal investigators began scrutinizing Hecker last year. Louisiana state police investigator Scott Rodrigue took over the case more recently in coordination with Williams’s office.
In June, armed with a court order threatening the church with punishment if it did not comply, Williams’s office compelled the archdiocese to turn over its files on Hecker.
If eventually convicted of rape and kidnapping, Hecker would face a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Louisiana’s definition of aggravated crime against nature is for practical purposes the same as statutory rape. In this case, that crime could carry up to 15 years in prison for Hecker if he is convicted of it.
With respect to the theft charge, Trahant said he understood that authorities appear prepared to contend that actions Hecker and his superiors took to conceal his client’s accusation robbed the victim of a chance to file a lawsuit seeking damages at a time when his claims would not have been vulnerable to arguments that they were filed past key legal deadlines.
Hecker was not immediately in custody on Thursday, but the New Orleans state court judge Kimya Holmes issued a warrant to arrest him in connection with the indictment. Holmes did not immediately set a bail for Hecker, saying she would leave it to whichever judge was later assigned to the case.
Members of the public could get a better idea of the evidence against Hecker as the case progresses.
Though much of that evidence hasn’t been publicized, one document that is known to exist is a deposition which he gave as part of a lawsuit filed against him and the archdiocese – before the church filed for bankruptcy, indefinitely delaying the proceeding.
The contents of the deposition – taken in late 2020 – remain sealed off from public view, though legal documents obtained by the Guardian do refer to it. Those documents assert that Hecker admitted to viewing images depicting child sexual abuse if they “appeared” on his computer while surfing the internet.
Documents describing the deposition also maintain that Hecker repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination – a clear sign that he was worried about one day being criminally charged.
The New Orleans-based federal judge Jane Triche Milazzo last week denied a request from one of Hecker’s prior alleged victims, Aaron Hebert, to unseal the deposition so it could be released to the public, arguing that it was a matter of community safety and interest to do so. Milazzo’s decision had a similar effect to prior rulings from other judges who kept the deposition under seal.
Attorneys for Hecker’s victims have been trying to gain the public access to that and other church files on Hecker since 2020.
Hebert is not the victim in the indictment handed up against Hecker on Thursday. That victim’s identity has not been publicly disclosed.
Nonetheless, an advocacy group to which Hebert belongs – the Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse (SCSA) – issued a statement saying a lawsuit which he filed that resulted in the deposition played an important role in leading to charges against Hecker.
“Mr Hebert … sits on the pantheon of warriros who endeavored to protect … children,” said the statement from the SCSA’s president, Richard Windmann.
Despite the newly filed rape charge against Hecker, many who have been following his case are worried that the nonagenarian may not live long enough to be tried in front of a judge or jury because of his advanced age.
Multiple clerics who were revealed to be suspected abusers after the archdiocese released its 2018 list have since died without being tried or convicted, despite sometimes being prosecuted by authorities.
In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453 or visit their website for more resources and to report child abuse or DM for help. For adult survivors of child abuse, help is available at ascasupport.org. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International