NEW ORLEANS — A living New Orleans priest confessed in 1999 to engaging in sexual acts or harassment with at least seven teens in his care from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, but the Archdiocese of New Orleans reassigned him to a Destrehan church and let him quietly retire three years later, according to a report by the Guardian.
The Archdiocese did not report Father Lawrence Hecker, 91, as a credibly accused child molester until 2018, almost 20 years after he confessed in a letter reviewed by the Guardian’s New Orleans correspondent.
The reporter, former WWL-TV reporting partner Ramon Antonio Vargas, said he was able to see hundreds of pages from secret archdiocesan records about Hecker, which the Guardian, The Associated Press, Hecker’s alleged victims, victims’ advocates and the Orleans Parish district attorney are fighting in court to unseal.
“Among the most illuminating documents was a statement in 1999 that (Hecker) wrote in which he admitted to abusing or harassing seven teenagers whom he met through his work as a priest,” Vargas said.
Vargas reports in the Guardian that Hecker spoke to Archbishop Philip Hannan about allegations of abuse in 1988, then again with Archbishop Frances Schulte in 1996 before writing his confession in 1999.
“There was also a man with a mental disability who he had brought food to during work and had fondled,” Vargas said.
The archdiocese responded to Hecker’s confession by sending Hecker to a psychiatric treatment facility.
Vargas said the evaluation found Hecker was “a pedophile who did not understand how his behavior affected others.” He said the facility’s report “explicitly recommended that he not work with children or adults who could be considered vulnerable.”
And yet, after Hecker returned fromt treatment, an archdiocesan letter assigned Hecker to work at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Destrehan, Vargas found.
He said that letter was sent to several top church officials at the time, including now-Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
The church let Hecker retire with full benefits in 2002. It kept paying him his full pension and health benefits until 2020, when the judge overseeing the archdiocese’s bankruptcy ordered it to stop paying those benefits to former employees accused of molesting children.
At the end of 2002, the church sent a letter to New Orleans Police reporting alleged crimes by living priests. WWL-TV has a version of the letter that is redacted, but Vargas said he saw the full letter and says it only reported one of the many allegations against Hecker and it doesn’t mention that Hecker had already confessed to abusing or harassing several teens.
WWL-TV asked the Archdiocese if Aymond knew about Hecker’s 1999 confession and if he made any effort to report the allegations before 2018.
The church didn’t answer those questions but sent this statement:
“In 2009, when Archbishop Aymond was named Archbishop of New Orleans, Lawrence Hecker had been removed from ministry for seven years and had been reported to law enforcement. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has and will continue to cooperate in any law enforcement investigation concerning Lawrence Hecker or into wrongdoing by any other cleric, employee or volunteer.”
The archdiocese delivered what it says was its entire file on Hecker to Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams last week, after Williams had asked a federal court to unseal the records.
Vargas declined to reveal his sources, but he took pains to say that Hecker’s victims, their attorneys and the DA’s office had had nothing to do with him getting access to the secret church documents.
An attorney representing multiple Hecker victims, Richard Trahant, was fined $400,000 by the federal Bankruptcy Court for disclosing information to Brother Martin High School when he learned from sealed documents that the school’s chaplain had admitted sexual contact with a 16-year-old girl. But Vargas reiterated that Trahant was not one of his sources for the Hecker story.
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