According to officials and others familiar with the investigation, the FBI has launched a broadening investigation into decades-old allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans. This is a rare federal foray into such cases and will specifically examine whether priests crossed state lines to sexually assault children.
As part of the investigation into whether predator priests can be charged under the Mann Act, a more than century-old anti-sex trafficking legislation that forbids transporting anybody across state lines for illegal sex, more than a dozen alleged abuse victims have been examined this year.
In some of the New Orleans instances being examined, clergy members are accused of abusing victims while visiting camps in Mississippi or theme parks in Texas and Florida. Despite the fact that some allegations go back many years, Mann Act offenses are exempt from the statute of limitations.
A former altar boy who claimed his abuser brought him on trips to Colorado and Florida and molested him starting in the 1970s when he was in the fifth grade said, “It’s been a long road, and just the fact that someone this high up believes us means the world to us.” People who claim to have been sexually assaulted are typically not identified by the AP.
Both the FBI and the Louisiana State Police, who are aiding with the investigation, declined to comment. The New Orleans Archdiocese declined to comment on the government probe.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the AP, “I’d prefer not to pursue this topic.”
The investigation might make the archdiocese’s legal predicament worse as it struggles to recover from bankruptcy brought on by a wave of sex abuse cases and claims that church authorities covered up generations of predatory priests.
According to those familiar with the investigation who spoke to the AP under the condition of anonymity and weren’t authorized to discuss it, federal investigators are currently debating whether to request access to thousands of secret church documents produced by lawsuits and protected by a broad confidentiality order in the bankruptcy. According to those papers, years’ worth of allegations of clerical abuse, interviews with accusers, and a pattern of church administrators reassigning problematic priests without informing law enforcement about their crimes are all documented.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the head of Child USA, a think tank devoted to preventing child abuse, said, “This is actually a major deal, and it should be encouraging to victims.” The FBI has infrequently intervened in scandals involving clergy sexual abuse. With regard the Catholic Church, they have lagged across the nation.
In cases as explosive as those described in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed a systematic cover-up by church leaders, the U.S. Justice Department has struggled to establish a federal connection for pursuing clerical abuse and has run into dead ends. The same year, in Buffalo, New York, federal prosecutors subpoenaed church records as part of an investigation that similarly fizzled out.
The problem has always been figuring out what constitutes a federal crime, according to Peter G. Strasser, a former U.S. attorney in New Orleans who decided not to file charges in 2018 after the archdiocese released a list of 57 “credibly accused” clergy, a list that an AP analysis revealed had been undercounted by at least 20 names.
According to Strasser, he “naively” thought a federal case may be feasible but ran into a number of obstacles, including as the difficulties of “putting the church on trial” for crimes like a conspiracy.
However, in recent years, federal prosecutors have used the more specific Mann Act to obtain convictions in a number of abuse cases, including those against R&B singer R. Kelly for using his fame to sexually exploit girls and Ghislaine Maxwell for assisting financier Jeffrey Epstein in abusing teenage girls. A Baptist preacher was given a 12-year jail sentence in 2013 by an Indiana federal judge for transporting a 16-year-old girl over state lines for sex.
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Lawrence Hecker, a 90-year-old priest who was expelled from the church in 2002 on the grounds that he had harmed “countless youngsters,” is one of the priests in New Orleans who are the subject of FBI investigation. Hecker is accused of rape and other crimes, including fondling children on out-of-state excursions decades ago.
Richard Trahant, an attorney for Lawrence Hecker’s alleged victims, stated in a court document that hundreds of records currently covered by the confidentiality order “will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a serial child predator.”
Hecker, according to Trahant, “is still very much alive, lively, lives by himself, and is a menace to young lads till he takes his last breath.”
This week, when asked via phone if he had ever assaulted kids, Hecker replied, “I’m going to have to hang up.”
Federal attention is also being drawn to more recent allegations, such as the case of Patrick Wattigny, a priest who was indicted last year by state authorities after confessing to molestation of a youngster in 2013. His counsel opted not to respond.
In 2020, Wattigny was dismissed from the ministry following a disciplinary inquiry into the inappropriate texts he had sent to a pupil. Because church authorities had usually described priest abuse as a sin from the past, the case shocked the Catholic community.
Bill Arata, a lawyer who has been present at three of the FBI interviews, stated that “it was happening while the church was stating it’s no longer happening.”
He continued, “These victims could stay in their homes and do nothing, but that’s not the kind of people they are.
Louisiana, a predominantly Catholic state that had some of the earlier scandals dating to the 1980s, is particularly sensitive when it comes to clergy abuse. It joined the other two dozen states that have “lookback windows” in place so that any unresolved allegations of child sex abuse, regardless of how old they are, can be presented in civil court last year.
But with a few notable exceptions, including a former deacon accused of rape, the accused clergy have avoided facing criminal charges. Statutes of limitations and the political sensitivity of prosecuting the church have hampered proceedings even locally.
A separate court battle over a cache of private emails describing the covert public relations work that executives for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints did for the archdiocese in 2018 and 2019 to contain the fallout from clergy abuse scandals has been put on hold as a result of the archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy case.
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Although the Saints claim they just helped with messaging, the lawyers for individuals suing the church claim that Saints executives participated in the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes” in court documents. According to the attorneys, this includes actively participating in the creation of the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused clergy.
Attorneys for individuals suing the church have criticized the bankruptcy filing as a covert attempt to keep church data hidden and prevent victims from holding the church accountable in front of the public.
Soren Gisleson, a lawyer for some of the victims, stated in a court document that “those victims were on the route to the truth.” “Children’s rape is a robber who never stops stealing.”