‘It wasn’t a big deal’: secret deposition reveals how a child molester priest was shielded by his church | New Orleans | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

An undated photo of a younger Lawrence Hecker. Photograph: Provided photo

Longtime New Orleans Catholic priest Lawrence Hecker received a special honor from the Vatican in 2000 despite having confessed to molesting children. Then, for another two decades, church leaders in the city strategically shielded him from law enforcement and media exposure – while also providing him with financial support ranging from paid limousine rides and therapeutic massages to full retirement benefits, according to his own, previously unreported testimony.

A sworn deposition Hecker gave in private in 2020 shows exactly how high-placed Catholic church officials in New Orleans let him keep his elevated position for years, even after they had been advised to oust him from the clergy and – much later – publicly acknowledged that he was a child predator.

“It wasn’t a big deal in those days,” Hecker said at the deposition about how his archdiocese coddled him despite his acknowledged abuse of children.

The scale of the cover-up shocks the conscience. As Hecker walked into New Orleans’ historic St Louis Cathedral in early January 2000 to be handed the honorary, Vatican-bestowed title of monsignor, he had already admitted molesting children he met through his ministry.

The St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Hecker by then had been flown out of town and driven by limousine to a psychiatric facility, which diagnosed him as an inveterate pedophile. He had been forced to take a months-long sabbatical – which was to begin the week after his promotional ceremony, at a cost to the archdiocese of $6,000. And he had already spoken to the archbishop of New Orleans at the time and his predecessor about the allegations against him.

Hecker admitted that the archbishop who presided over his 2000 promotion – the late Francis Bible Schulte – told him he regretted sending his name to his superiors in Rome to be exalted, shortly before the priest confessed to being a serial child abuser.

“Archbishop Schulte told me – he said – ‘If I had known of this, I would not have sent in for your promotion,’” Hecker testified. “‘I would not have asked for you to be a monsignor.’”

But nothing was done.

To borrow one of Hecker’s favorite words when discussing his past, Schulte and his colleagues “evidently” got over it.

First, they went through with conferring the distinction of monsignor upon Hecker, with approval from the then pope, John Paul II. And then Schulte’s successors as archbishop – Alfred Hughes and the present incumbent, Gregory Aymond – ignored a previously hidden recommendation from an official review board calling on them to laicize Hecker, which would have expelled him from the priesthood.

As a result, Hecker avoided being publicly exposed as a predator for nearly two decades. He was also able to collect tens of thousands of dollars in assistance from the second-oldest US archdiocese before at last facing a meaningful consequence: a grand jury indictment in September of last year that charged him with child rape, kidnapping and other crimes.

According to a bombshell search warrant Louisiana state police troopers served on the church in late April, the investigation which produced those charges has evolved into an inquiry over whether members of the archdiocese – in Hecker’s case and others – operated as a child sex-trafficking ring responsible for “widespread sexual abuse of minors dating back decades” that was “covered up and not reported to law enforcement”.

During the 2020 deposition, an attorney for a number of Hecker’s abuse accusers asked the priest if he felt fortunate that he had managed to elude being criminally charged for so long after the truth had started to trickle out. Hecker replied: “I don’t think that was even thought about at the time.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Photograph: David Grunfeld/AP

The eight-and-a-half-hour deposition offers the most complete accounting yet of the lengths to which an organization serving a region with about a half-million Catholics went to shelter Hecker. He gave the testimony for a civil lawsuit seeking damages from him and the archdiocese.

The plaintiff, Aaron Hebert, has publicly alleged he was an underage altar boy at a church in Gretna, Louisiana, in the late 1960s when Hecker lined him and other children up against a wall, ordered them to drop their pants and fondled their genitals. A May 2020 bankruptcy protection filing by the archdiocese put a halt to a wave of abuse-related lawsuits including Hebert’s, but his legal team, led by Richard Trahant, received special permission to privately question Hecker under oath.

Lawyers for the archdiocese have repeatedly gone to court to oppose public access to that deposition. But the Guardian and New Orleans’s CBS affiliate, WWL Louisiana, collaborated to obtain video of Hecker’s testimony and hundreds of pages of evidentiary exhibits.

The session, carried out over two days in December 2020, provides an unprecedented look at how Hecker, now 92, evaded accountability for so long. It comes as he and his accusers wait to see whether a judge agrees with a psychiatric opinion that Hecker is not mentally competent to stand trial.

Hecker’s testimony was enlightening even as he avoided answering many questions by invoking his rights against self-incrimination under the constitution’s fifth amendment. He did so a staggering 117 times – or about once every four minutes – in a sign of concern that eventually law enforcement could use his answers against him.

Neither the attorneys for Hecker nor the plaintiff commented on the deposition.

In written answers to detailed questions, an archdiocesan spokesperson said the church stood by how Aymond handled complaints against Hecker and referred questions about his predecessors to living members of their former administrations.

The church also maintained that it properly reported Hecker to law enforcement and district attorneys across south-east Louisiana, despite the fact that a 2002 letter that notified New Orleans police about him failed to mention his confession three years earlier, among other omissions.

A long history of molestation allegations

The deposition covered allegations dating back to the 1960s, from more than a dozen accusers. Yet it is unclear how many more people have claims against Hecker, including in the archdiocesan bankruptcy case. When Trahant asked “You have committed so many sexual felonies against children that you can’t remember them all, correct?”, Hecker pleaded the fifth amendment.

For decades, Hecker testified, his superiors did not take victims or their advocates seriously, even in the rare instances when they promised a vigorous investigation.

He said the then archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan, confronted Hecker in 1988 with allegations from the parents of a boy who said he was molested in the late 1970s. Hannan then flew Hecker to a paid sabbatical in New York City, church documents show. There, Hecker took classes at Fordham University while he lived and worked at a Bronx church, St Mary’s.

Church records presented at the deposition show that a high-ranking New York archdiocese official wrote to Hannan asking him to vouch for Hecker.

Hannan wrote back that Hecker had permission to be in New York – without mentioning allegations of child sexual abuse.

“It wasn’t a big deal in those days,” Hecker testified.

That comment prompted his criminal defense attorney, Eugene Redmann, to exclaim: “Wow!”

A segment from WWL’s Losing Faith series.

Another complaint in 1996 by the mother of three boys prompted then archbishop Schulte’s top aide to confront Hecker, who admitted taking showers, swimming in the nude and sleeping in the same bed as the woman’s sons, according to documents referenced in the deposition. Yet Hecker insisted he stopped short of inappropriate contact with any of those children, and the archdiocese dismissed the complaint as unsubstantiated.

‘I did a good job’

A fresh complaint was filed against Hecker in October 1999, about a month after Schulte announced that Hecker would be promoted to monsignor the following year. On 4 November, Hecker provided a typed statement to the archdiocese in which he acknowledged “overtly sexual acts” with, or harassment of, multiple children.

Soon after, Hecker said a limousine driver who picked him up from the airport delivered him to a psychiatric clinic near Philadelphia, where he was evaluated over the course of a few days. The clinic concluded that Hecker was a pedophile who “takes little responsibility for his behavior” and recommended he refrain from ministering to “children, adolescents or other vulnerable individuals”.

In the deposition, Hecker took pains to avoid admitting his official diagnosis. Trahant established that the archdiocese withheld Hecker’s treatment records for the session. But Trahant had medical insurance coding records – and he directed Hecker to read the code for his diagnosis as well as to say what it meant.

Hecker balked. He told his attorney, “This seems like a trap,” before finally acknowledging the numerical code referred to pedophilia.

He returned from receiving his diagnosis, accepted his promotion to monsignor, then went on another forced sabbatical – this time to San Antonio, Texas. To do so, he had to resign his position as pastor from a church in Terrytown, Louisiana.

In a letter to congregants, he attributed the break to physical fatigue and “aging”.

Thomas Rodi – now the archbishop of Mobile, Alabama, at the time an aide to Schulte – signed an invoice authorizing a $6,000 payment to cover the sabbatical. Deposition records suggest at least some of that money went to cover $35-an-hour therapeutic massages, although Hecker denied getting more than one.

When Hecker returned, Schulte assigned him to St Charles Borromeo church in Destrehan, Louisiana, which has a grammar school attached. Copied on the letter informing Hecker of his new assignment are Rodi and Aymond, then senior Schulte lieutenants, now among the highest-ranking Catholic church officials along the US’s Gulf coast.

Rodi didn’t respond to a request for comment. An archdiocesan spokesperson said Aymond, then a vicar general and auxiliary bishop, had no administrative role overseeing Hecker at the time.

Hecker at his deposition said they didn’t limit his authority at St Charles Borromeo, but the pastor there was supposed to keep an eye on him. Pressed on whether the pastor could effectively do that, Hecker said: “Frankly, obviously he couldn’t watch me … every moment. No.”

Hecker defended the archdiocese’s decision to let him resume his clerical career despite his confession and two abuse-related sabbaticals.

“You know, like, I did a good job,” Hecker said. “Any time I was asked to do something, you know, I cooperated and so on.”

Keeping it quiet

Hecker retired with full benefits – providing him everything from housing and insurance to retirement income – in 2002, just when a clerical abuse and cover-up scandal in Boston hit fever pitch.

New Orleans’s archbishop at the time, Alfred Hughes, had come from Boston – an attorney general’s report published later said he helped “perpetuate a practice of utmost secrecy and confidentiality with respect to the problem” of clerical abuse there.

A New Orleans review board advising Hughes on managing fallout from the Boston crisis urged him to laicize Hecker, according to documents provided for the priest’s deposition.

Laicization would have ejected Hecker from the clergy and demoted him to a member of the laity. At his deposition, he admitted he would probably have forfeited lucrative retirement benefits if Hughes had followed that recommendation, which has never before been reported and which Hecker said he only learned about from Trahant’s questioning.

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the Boston archdiocese, which was also caught up in a major child sexual assault scandal. Photograph: Gretchen Ertl/AP

But Hughes ignored that recommendation. Instead he wrote to Hecker to order him not to dress as a priest or celebrate masses in public. Hecker showed his displeasure in a letter of his own.

“If I never dress as a priest, fellow priests and family members will almost certainly talk about it and before long the word would be out,” Hecker wrote.

The archbishop said he would be “happy” for Hecker to work as a volunteer at the archdiocesan archives, where workers could “dress informally”. That way, no one would find it odd Hecker was not dressing as a priest any more.

The late monsignor Raymond Hebert, who once served as the archdiocese’s director of clergy, put it even more pointedly.

“Our only concern is that someone in [Hecker’s] past might decide to go public,” Hebert wrote to another top Hughes aide in 2000.

Hecker confirmed to Trahant that the archdiocese by then was invested in keeping his misdeeds – whether acknowledged or alleged – under wraps.

“We all, you know, didn’t want big publicity or anything,” Hecker said. “Oh, yes.”

As an example, Trahant called attention to a 2002 letter that attorneys for the archdiocese – who reviewed personnel files – wrote to New Orleans police, ostensibly to notify officers of accusations against Hecker.

But that letter only mentioned a single person’s allegations, including a purported, out-of-state crime that happened outside the agency’s jurisdiction. The letter made no mention of Hecker confessing to several abusive acts. Police made no move against him.

An archdiocesan spokesperson said: “Archbishop Hughes is responsible for reporting Mr Hecker to law enforcement,” and referred questions to the retired archbishop emeritus. Hughes did not respond to requests for comment.

What Aymond knew

Aymond succeeded Hughes as archbishop in 2009. Though the church continued to suppress the reason for Hecker’s retirement seven years earlier, allegations flowed in.

A 2011 memo written by a nun serving as Aymond’s abuse victims assistance coordinator informed the archbishop that “Larry” – Hecker’s nickname – “was known among … boys as a predator.” The memo told Aymond that Hecker spoke of wanting “to put the past behind him” in a conversation with Hebert in 1996, but he “nevertheless continued to perpetrate through 1997”.

No additional details are available in the deposition exhibits. And the archdiocese said it had no further details about those allegations.

But the memo contradicts repeated claims that Hecker had stopped abusing in the 1980s – assertions he made to the archdiocese and to the psychiatric facility that diagnosed him with pedophilia.

At Hecker’s deposition, Trahant asked if he knew the archdiocese had paid more than $30,000 for his treatment from a local social worker, many of the payments approved by a top Aymond aide, the vicar general Patrick Williams. Hecker said he didn’t.

Hecker also said he was mostly unaware of abuse complaints that came in under Aymond’s watch, costing the archdiocese at least $332,500 in out-of-court settlements over 10 years beginning in 2010.

Those agreements were among more than 130 abuse-related settlements the archdiocese paid out in the decade before it declared bankruptcy. Many were negotiated by the archdiocese’s general counsel from 2012 to 2019, Wendy Vitter. The US Senate confirmed Vitter as a federal judge in 2019, after she was nominated by then president Donald Trump.

In a strange moment during his deposition, Hecker described receiving an instruction – from someone he swore he could no longer remember – to never contact Vitter under any circumstances.

He didn’t elaborate on why he thought that was, but in addition to her legal career, Vitter is married to David Vitter, a former US senator.

A federal judiciary spokesperson said Vitter was unsure who had instructed Hecker not to speak with her – or why.

Ultimately, acting in part on advice from Wendy Vitter, Aymond decided to include Hecker on the first version of a list of 57 clergy credibly accused of molesting children or vulnerable adults. That list has grown to include nearly 80 names. But Hecker’s deposition revealed how reluctantly the archdiocese acted against him.

Just 11 days before that list came out in November 2018, the archdiocese fielded a new complaint accusing Hecker of spending a weekend in the early 1970s molesting a boy he met at a high school, records mentioned at the deposition show. The accuser said he had tried to report Hecker to a well-known priest named William Maestri, who at various points has been the archdiocese’s spokesperson and superintendent of parochial schools.

The complainant “was not impressed” with the response from Maestri, whose name is misspelled as Maestre in deposition records.

“Yes, we heard stories about things like this,” Maestri reportedly said, according to a written document provided for the deposition. “We did move him around but eventually had to retire him.”

The complainant reportedly said he wanted to see Hecker’s name on the credibly accused list, which the church had announced would be released soon. But before that, Aymond spoke openly about how difficult it would be to determine exactly who would merit inclusion.

In an email to Aymond, a top aide said he told the complainant it “might not be possible” to include Hecker on the list.

When asked about that comment, the archdiocese said that the aide – victims assistance coordinator Stephen Synan – was not involved in creating the list.

Hecker charged with rape

Hecker’s entry on the 2018 credibly accused disclosure makes no mention of how many separate accusations of child molestation he has faced. It says the first allegation reported against Hecker arrived in 1996, apparently ignoring the one Hannan addressed with him in 1988.

“That is not true, is it?” Trahant asked Hecker at the deposition. After resisting answering the question, Hecker said: “Yeah. Evidently, that must be an error.”

The archdiocese said it had no record of any complaint to Hannan in 1988, despite Hecker’s written confession and testimony that it existed.

After the list’s release, archdiocesan officials sought to assure parishioners that Hecker for years had been restricted from presenting himself as a priest – much less saying mass. But at his deposition, Hecker recounted how during the last 18 years he had presided over masses for residents at a priests’ retirement home where he had lived.

He even detailed how Aymond himself went to a mass and brunch there in July 2019, breaking bread with Hecker and at least two other priests on the credibly accused list, confirming a long-held rumor that offended clergy molestation survivors and their advocates.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond at the St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans celebrating Easter in 2020. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

“Yes, I’ve been celebrating the mass there,” Hecker said, of the retirement home. Asked if archdiocesan officials were aware, Hecker said: “Yeah, they knew.”

An archdiocesan spokesperson said that church law allows priests to continue saying mass in private without a “congregation”. But church law expert Tom Doyle – who used to serve as the staff canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington DC – said that in cases like Hecker’s, private mass cannot involve anyone other than the priest and perhaps an altar server.

Eventually, Hecker’s inclusion on the 2018 roster produced the most serious ramification for him. A member of the US military went to law enforcement and reported that he was a teenager in 1975 when Hecker, then a staff member at his high school, strangled him unconscious in a church bell tower – pretending to teach him a wrestling move – then sodomized him.

The archdiocese of New Orleans waited to turn over Hecker’s complete personnel file until June 2023, when it received a subpoena from the local district attorney. Three months later, a grand jury empaneled by the DA charged Hecker with aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated crime against nature and theft.

He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted as charged, he would receive mandatory life imprisonment.

In August 2023, the Guardian and WWL asked Hecker about those allegations. He flatly denied choking and raping anyone.

But he had already been asked the question. At his 2020 deposition, Trahant asked Hecker if he raped the victim at the center of the only criminal case ever opened against him.

Under oath, he invoked his fifth amendment rights.

  • 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 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.

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