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FBI investigation into New Orleans clergy abuse could revitalize old cases

Criminal cases that are too old under state law could be revitalized under federal law.

NEW ORLEANS — The FBI has an open investigation of decades-old claims of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, according to attorneys who confirmed several of their clients have been interviewed by federal agents in recent months.

Bill Arata, whose clients include the alleged victim of Patrick Wattigny, a Slidell priest and high school chaplain who was arrested on state child molestation charges last year, said his clients have been questioned by FBI agents.

Other attorneys representing dozens of other victims also said federal investigators have been interviewing their clients and focusing on potential violations of the Mann Act, which gives federal jurisdiction to prosecute sex crimes if a perpetrator took a victim across state lines for illicit sex, even if the alleged crime took place decades ago.

That means that allegations of crimes such as molestation and rape dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, which are too old to prosecute under state law, could now be revitalized under federal law.

It also could affect a years-long effort by victims’ lawyers to unseal the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ internal records of allegations made against their priests. The archdiocese is seeking federal bankruptcy protection amid a rash of sex abuse claims and lawsuits, and lawyers representing the alleged victims have petitioned U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill to unseal documents that could affect criminal prosecution of individual priests and deacons.

A key focus has been allegations against Lawrence Hecker, a former priest who is still alive and has been accused of Mann Act violations in court filings. In 2020, victims’ attorneys urged Grabill to unseal church records that could be used to file criminal charges involving Hecker, including alleged violations of the Mann Act and alleged failure to report the church’s findings to law enforcement. 

The archdiocese’s attorneys argued in court against unsealing the records. According to court transcripts, Grabill declined to unseal the records and said she would have the records destroyed if they had been previously sealed in state court.

FBI spokeswoman Lori Grice said she could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.

But victims of sexual abuse by clergy cheered the news, first reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday morning, that the federal government may be pursuing new criminal charges against living clergy and former priests or deacons.

“It takes a vehicle like the federal government to investigate, to produce what has been covered up,” said Tim Trahan, who has alleged two former priests molested him in Louisiana and took him out of state on trips. “This is something that I've been looking forward to happening, for some type of mechanism to produce this information. And I'm sure that all those other people who have brought forth complaints and those who have remained silent for years and will never speak about it again, I think that for all those people, this is very welcomed information.”

Trahan alleges a retired priest, Luis Fernandez, who was his Spanish teacher at St. John Vianney Prep in 1976, molested him in a New Orleans hotel room when Trahan was 15. Trahan says he was afraid to report the abuse, then agreed to go on a trip to Miami with Fernandez to visit the priest's family there.

He said Fernandez tried to get him to sleep with him in his bed, but Trahan refused and was not molested while there. Reached by phone in Miami in 2020, Fernandez declined to respond to Trahan's allegations and told WWL-TV to speak to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, not him.

Several other victims who have shared their stories with WWL-TV said they were sexually abused by other priests when they took them to other states, including by priests who are still living. Mark Vath, for instance, alleged that Paul Calamari, a former principal at St. John Vianney Prep, sexually abused him at a family camp in Mississippi. Calamari's attorney declined to comment on those allegations in 2020.

But most of the arguments in the Archdiocese's federal bankruptcy case have focused on Hecker. Victims' attorneys have called Hecker a "serial child molester" in court filings and argued that documents kept under seal should be excluded from the court's protective orders because "they tend to prove actual crimes."

Advocates from the national Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said a federal probe could be the key to unlock those cases.

"We have no doubt that this probe will reveal far more truths to the public than we have gotten from church officials in New Orleans," SNAP leaders said in a written statement. "A probe like this is absolutely critical, especially when considering the move by church hierarchs in New Orleans to pre-emptively declare bankruptcy, a move that we believe was designed to shield assets, protect secrets, and prevent information about the cover-up from making it into the public eye."

But the archdiocese said they were not aware of any effort by law enforcement to get the church's internal files.

"Beyond today’s Associated Press report, the Archdiocese of New Orleans is unaware of any federal investigation into clergy abuse," a church spokesperson wrote.

    

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