NEW ORLEANS —
The alleged rape victim of a retired New Orleans Catholic priest who was indicted Thursday remembers immediately reporting the assault to the high school where it happened – and being heartbroken that nothing was ever done about it.
Now, 48 years later, the victim is as hopeful as ever that the man charged with raping him at a church attached to his school – Lawrence Hecker – will finally face justice, his attorney told the Guardian and WWL-TV in an interview Thursday.
“I would say he’s very relieved,” the attorney, Richard Trahant, said. “But he knows that this is not the end of it – that this is the beginning of the prosecution. And his involvement will become more and more necessary from here until however this gets resolved.”
As Trahant tells it, his client was either 15 or 16 in 1975 when Hecker approached him at St. Theresa the Little Flower of the Child Jesus church, which was adjacent to the boy’s high school, St. John Vianney prep. Hecker at the time worked at St. John Vianney, a New Orleans school that served boys interested in joining the clergy.
Decades with few consequences
The client recalled that Hecker went up to him purporting to want to teach him a wrestling move – then, he squeezed the boy’s neck until he fell unconscious and “sodomized” him, Trahant said.
“Very shortly thereafter, my client reported this to the school,” Trahant revealed in Thursday’s interview. But Hecker faced no consequences.
In the ensuing decades, persistent claims of misconduct by Hecker caused the priest to give a typed statement to leaders at New Orleans’s Catholic archdiocese in 1999, as was first reported by the Guardian. Hecker’s statement acknowledged that he had sexually molested or harassed numerous children whom he had met after becoming an ordained priest in 1958.
The archdiocese subsequently sent Hecker to an out-of-state psychiatric treatment center, which diagnosed him as a pedophile. The facility recommended that the archdiocese isolate Hecker from working with minors or other “particularly vulnerable” people, according to secret church documents reviewed by the Guardian and WWL.
Hecker’s career, however, continued for three more years, and he faced no public rebuke for the next 19 years. He was stationed at a church with an elementary school attached to it in 2000. And he worked there until he quietly retired in 2002, when a Catholic clerical molestation and cover-up scandal plunged Boston’s archdiocese into scandal, prompting reforms and promises of transparency from the worldwide church.
Keeping Hecker was costly to Archdiocese financially
Later, over a decade-long period beginning in 2010, the archdiocese paid more than $332,000 to reach out-of-court settlements on five complaints accusing Hecker of sexual abuse. Yet the New Orleans archdiocese did not inform local Catholics that it strongly surmised Hecker had molested minors until it released a 2018 list of priests and deacons who were considered credibly accused sexual predators, a step which the church marketed as an act of transparency and contrition.
The 2018 list marked the first time Trahant’s client realized he wasn’t the only one whom Hecker had abused. Also appearing on that list as a strongly suspected child molester was a priest named Paul Calamari, who was the principal of the high school at the time that Trahant’s client reported being raped by Hecker.
Ultimately, Trahant’s client decided to report his abuse at the hands of Hecker again – but this time, he circumvented the church and went to law enforcement. The client met with FBI agents in late June of last year, Trahant said.
“That was a very retraumatizing experience – I was there in the room with him, and his [post-traumatic stress disorder] was palpable,” Trahant said Thursday.
Investigators also interviewed Hecker at some point last year, but nothing was immediately done.
Prosecutors with New Orleans district attorney Jason Williams’s office had taken over Hecker’s case by the beginning of this summer. In June, they served a subpoena on the archdiocese for the church’s records on Hecker.
Stunning admissions in WWL-TV interview
Hecker in August granted an interview to WWL and the Guardian in which he admitted that he indeed committed the sexually abusive acts he described in his 1999 confession to church leaders. Trahant said his client watched and read about the interview in awe.
“He was less surprised by the content than he was by the fact that after all these years, Hecker finally admitted it,” Trahant said.
In that interview, which made headlines across the US, Hecker denied ever choking out or raping a child.
Yet that did not stop Williams’s office from securing a grand jury indictment Thursday which charged Hecker with aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping and other crimes.
In fact, Williams said Hecker’s statements on WWL will help the case against him.
“We're going to use every single word that has ever been uttered by Mr. Hecker against him, as we should,” he said.
The case resulted directly from what Trahant’s client reported to authorities. It was the first time Hecker had ever been criminally charged.
Statutes of limitation in Louisiana do not prevent authorities from pursuing long-ago allegations of aggravated rape. That crime and aggravated kidnapping call for mandatory life imprisonment if convicted.
Trahant said he and his client realize that Hecker’s age – 91 – means he may not live long enough to be brought to trial. The last clergyman whom New Orleans prosecutors charged with child rape was deacon George Brignac, a suspected serial predator who was indicted in 2019 and died months later at the age of 85 without a jury ever hearing the case against him.
Nonetheless, Trahant said Thursday’s indictment was significant validation for his client and others with reports of abuse by Hecker.
“Lawrence Hecker got away with grotesque sexual felonies against children for many decades,” Trahant said. “This indictment is a victory for all victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.”