Expanding clergy sexual abuse probe targets New Orleans Catholic church leaders

NEW ORLEANS– Authorities have expanded an investigation into clergy sex abuse at the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans to include senior church officials suspected of protecting predatory priests for decades and failing to report their crimes to law enforcement.

Louisiana State Police last week executed a massive search warrant in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, looking for a long-hidden cache of church documents and communications between local church leaders and the Vatican about the church’s handling of clergy sex abuse.

The search launched a new phase of the investigation that will attempt to determine what certain church leaders, including current and former archbishops, knew about claims described in the warrant as “ignored and, in many cases, covered up.”

The order included several new details about the sex trafficking investigation, including claims that some victims were sexually assaulted in a seminary swimming pool after being ordered to undergo “skinny dips.” In addition, predatory priests developed a system of sharing their victims by receiving “gifts” that they had to pass on to clergy from other schools or churches.

“It was said that the ‘gift’ was a form of signaling to another priest that the individual was a target for sexual abuse,” State Police Investigator Scott Rodrigue wrote in an affidavit in support of the warrant.

The order involved an extensive set of personnel files, “files located in all vaults” and documents showing the extent to which the archdiocese continued to support clergy even after they were added to the so-called credibly accused list of suspected predators.

The order also confirmed a parallel FBI investigation into clergy sex abuse reported by The Associated Press nearly two years ago. That investigation examined whether priests brought children across state lines to molest them.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond did not respond to a request for comment and has rejected repeated calls from clerical abuse accusers to resign. The Vatican also did not respond to a request for comment.

“No one and no institution is above the law, especially when we talk about protecting children from the horrors of child sexual abuse,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAAdvocacy, a nonprofit organization that advocates for accusers of child sexual abuse . “This order is the necessary force for the criminal system to protect children.”

Many of the most explosive church documents came to light in a flurry of sexual abuse lawsuits that led the archdiocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection four years ago. The documents detail years of abuse claims, interviews with accused clergy and a pattern of church leaders transferring problem priests, but they are protected under a sweeping confidentiality order in the bankruptcy case that has long hampered state and federal investigations.

“We have been forced, against our own professional obligations, to keep them secret,” said attorneys Richard Trahant, Soren Gisleson and John Denenea, who represent the plaintiffs.

The search could increase legal risk for church leaders, exposing them to possible prosecution in state courts, while the U.S. Justice Department has struggled to identify federally prosecutable crimes related to clergy sex abuse.

Last year, an Orleans Parish grand jury indicted Lawrence Hecker, a now 92-year-old disgraced priest, on charges of sexually abusing a teenage boy in 1975 — an extraordinary prosecution that last week sparked a broader investigation into the archdiocese.

Hecker has pleaded not guilty to counts of rape, kidnapping, serious crimes against nature and theft. He is accused of choking the teen unconscious under the guise of a wrestling move and sexually assaulting him.

The archdiocese failed to report Hecker’s recordings to law enforcement, while allowing him to work with children, until he quietly left the ministry in 2002. Church officials reassigned Hecker even after he was sent to a mental institution in Pennsylvania and “diagnosed as a pedophile.” command says.

“Hecker was not the only member of the archdiocese to undergo psychiatric testing based on allegations of child sexual abuse,” Rodrigue wrote in the warrant.

The age of the Hecker case presents legal and evidentiary hurdles for prosecutors, who also face the political sensitivity of prosecuting a longtime pastor in heavily Catholic New Orleans. Many predatory priests have escaped criminal consequences in Louisiana for those reasons, making the scope of last week’s search even more remarkable.

One high-profile exception came in 2019 in the case of George F. Brignac, a longtime deacon and teacher accused of sexually assaulting a then-altar boy in the 1970s. Brignac died in 2020 while awaiting trial at the age of 85. He had pleaded not guilty.

Lawsuits involving Brignac produced thousands of still-secret emails documenting the behind-the-scenes public relations work New Orleans Saints executives did for the archdiocese in 2018 and 2019 to stem the fallout from clergy abuse scandals to contain.


Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.


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