FBI agents have questioned Lawrence Hecker, 91, who worked as a Catholic priest in New Orleans until 2002 despite the archdiocese being aware of molestation accusation since 1988
Ramon Antonio Vargas in New Orleans
Sat 24 Sep 2022 12.00 BST
In arguably the clearest sign yet that he is under active criminal investigation, a retired Catholic priest from New Orleans who has been publicly accused of molesting “countless” children but never charged has acknowledged that the FBI recently questioned him.
Lawrence Hecker, 91, declined to elaborate on exactly when FBI agents met with him or what they asked him as they reportedly lead an investigation into whether clerics serving a Louisiana region that is home to nearly half a million Catholics took children across state lines to abuse them. But, in a brief conversation with the Guardian, Hecker admitted that FBI agents had spoken with him.
“I told them I needed to speak to my attorney, and that’s where we left it,” Hecker said, apparently indicating he invoked his constitutional rights to be represented by a lawyer when interrogated and to otherwise remain silent during the talk with agents.
Hecker’s lawyer, Eugene Redmann, confirmed that the FBI at least interacted with his client at some point last week but would not comment beyond that.
“I just don’t have enough information, frankly, and additionally it was a brief encounter as opposed to any sort of in-depth questioning,” Redmann said of his client’s exchange with the FBI, which let Hecker go at the end of the meeting without arresting him.
An FBI spokesperson said the agency had no comment about Hecker, citing a US justice department policy against confirming or denying the existence of any investigation.
While Hecker’s name may not be known nationwide, in New Orleans, he is perhaps the most notorious still-living priest on a list of clerics who have worked in that area over the decades and were subject to credible allegations of using their status as a priest or deacon to sexually exploit and molest children.
The roster has swelled from more than 50 names to nearly 80 since the city’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, first released the list in 2018 as local Catholic leaders continued trying to manage the fallout of the worldwide church’s decades-old clergy molestation crisis.
Much of what is known about the allegations against Hecker came in the form of a lawsuit filed after that roster of accused clergy abusers was published. Lawyers for the plaintiff in that case allege that Hecker abused their client in 1968 while the accuser was a boy studying at a Catholic school in a New Orleans suburb, portraying it as just one act of molestation inflicted on a minor by “a serial pedophile who abused countless children”.
The lawsuit in question alleges that Hecker’s supervisors knew he had committed crimes for which he can still be punished because there is no deadline by which he needs to be charged for them, something that legally is known as a statute of limitation.
But, the lawsuit maintained, Hecker’s supervisors did not immediately report him to law enforcement authorities, saying the handling of his case was no different from those at the heart of the scandal that engulfed Boston’s Catholic archdiocese in 2002 and prompted the worldwide church to implement transparency policies as well as other reforms.
Hecker, in court filings, later denied the plaintiff’s claims.
Nonetheless, an attorney for New Orleans’ archdiocese eventually disclosed in open court that church officials first learned Hecker was accused of molestation in 1988 and that they later paid out at least four civil financial settlements in cases involving various accusations against him. Yet, despite abuse claims that were worth paying to settle, Hecker was allowed to work in the archdiocese until he retired in 2002.
Transparency policies that US bishops voted to enact that year should have resulted in Hecker being publicly identified as a strongly suspected child molester. But another 16 years passed before the archdiocese publicly acknowledged its suspicion that Hecker was an abuser.
Meanwhile, until the summer of 2020, Hecker continued receiving retirement benefits that included a pension, insurance coverage and – at least for a time – a church-paid apartment, which outraged victim advocacy groups who have long yearned to see him and other alleged but unpunished clergy abusers endure being criminally prosecuted.
Despite the church claiming it was morally obliged to provide such benefits regardless of whether the recipients were accused of misconduct, those perks were discontinued by a federal judge overseeing the local archdiocese’s request for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections, which the church argued it needed in the face of mounting abuse lawsuits and financial strains associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
The bankruptcy filing – still pending – indefinitely halted the lawsuits entangling Hecker and other accused clergy abusers, cases that were in general largely sealed off from public view at the request of church attorneys.
That bankruptcy-related pause in litigation didn’t prevent Hecker from sitting for a deposition in late December 2020 by the plaintiff whose lawsuit has revealed much of what is known about the church’s handling of allegations against him. And the plaintiff – who has long argued that Hecker is dangerous as long as he’s alive, no matter how old he is – requested that the contents of that potentially explosive deposition be unsealed so that the public had a full understanding of the case.
Nonetheless, after a closed-door hearing, the request to unseal the deposition was denied.
In early July, the Associated Press reported that the FBI had interviewed more than a dozen alleged victims of abusive clergy who had worked in New Orleans as agents opened an investigation into alleged sex abuse by church personnel there.
The AP reported that the investigation – which went back decades – was examining whether predator clerics could be prosecuted under the Mann Act, an anti-human trafficking law that for more than 100 years has prohibited taking anyone across state lines for illicit sex and has no statute of limitation.
The AP’s report noted that Hecker was one of the clerics that the FBI’s investigation was scrutinizing, having been accused of abusing children decades ago on out-of-state trips as well as misconduct ranging from fondling to rape.
Because of Hecker’s advanced age and how long criminal cases can take to prosecute in the US, many who track clerical abuse cases are uncertain whether he might ever face punishment. Multiple clerics who were unmasked as suspected abusers after the archbishop released his 2018 list have since died either without being tried or convicted, despite sometimes being under active investigation by authorities.