State Police warrant

— Former New Orleans archbishops knew about clergy sex abuse

Louisiana State Police serve the Archdiocese of New Orleans with a search warrant Wednesday morning, April 25, 2024.


For the first time, Louisiana law enforcement officials are digging deeply into allegations that former New Orleans archbishops, the highest-ranking officials in the state’s Catholic hierarchy, knew about child sex abuse by priests and deacons and tried to cover it up.

The claims are contained in an extraordinary 11-page affidavit supporting a search warrant that was served by State Police on the Archdiocese of New Orleans last week. In it, investigators say that, while looking into clergy sex abuse in a joint probe with the FBI, they uncovered documents that “back the claim that previous Archbishops, not only knew of the sexual abuse and failed to report all the claims to law enforcement but spent Archdiocese funding to support the accused.”

The affidavit, released Tuesday, details allegations of sex abuse dating back decades. Among the claims: That clergy transported victims across state lines to abuse them; hosted nude pool parties for potential victims at the Notre Dame Seminary; and created a system whereby potential victims would unwittingly transport “gifts” from one priest to another, signaling they had been marked for sexual abuse.

The affidavit says that State Police sought the warrant because they believe there is probable cause the archdiocese was engaging in “trafficking of children for sexual purposes.” It adds that sealed church records identify one former archbishop who “was aware of rampant sexual abuse throughout the Archdiocese.” That archbishop is not named.

Though survivors of clergy sex abuse have long accused church officials in civil lawsuits of improperly handling and covering up abuse allegations, the document backing up the search warrant is the first time a law enforcement agency has made such claims as part of a criminal probe.

It is unclear how far that investigation will go, or whether the FBI is still involved. A State Police spokesman said his agency is currently acting alone. The FBI declined to comment.

In a prepared statement Tuesday, the church said: “The Archdiocese has been openly discussing the topic of sex abuse for over 20 years. In keeping with this, we also are committed to working with law enforcement in these endeavors.”

State Police said the archdiocese has agreed to cooperate, though it has not turned over any records yet.

New Orleans author Jason Berry, who has written about clergy sex abuse for nearly three decades, said he believes the investigation is a serious development in the ongoing crisis.

“My sense is that law enforcement is looking at this as a systemic cover-up and wants to get to the bottom of it,” Berry said.

Roots in Hecker case

The search warrant stems from an investigation into disgraced former priest Lawrence Hecker, 92, who was arrested last fall on charges of kidnapping and rape and is currently awaiting trial. Investigators say that in the course of the Hecker investigation, they were made aware of additional allegations that led to them to seek the search warrant.

The warrant seeks decades’ worth of documents, communications and information related to priest assignments. Specifically, it asks for files that identify every priest and deacon accused of abusing children while working in the archdiocese, not just those whom the church has deemed credibly accused.

In 2018, Archbishop Gregory Aymond released a list of 50 former clergy members that the church had determined were credibly accused. The list, which has since grown to include dozens more names, resulted in a surge of new claims, which prompted the archdiocese to file for federal bankruptcy protection on May 1, 2020.

The warrant also seeks correspondence between Aymond, his staff and the Vatican. It references the Hecker case, and details how the former priest was sent by the church to a psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania after an alleged rape of a child in 1975. There, he was diagnosed as a pedophile, but “was released and reassigned to another parish after his evaluation with the blessing of the Archbishop, who was aware of his medical diagnosis.”

The archbishop at the time of the alleged rape was the late Archbishop Philip Hannan, who served from 1965 to 1988.

The warrant adds that “Hecker was not the only member the archdiocese sent to receive psychiatric testing based on allegations of child sex abuse.”

Some of the most disturbing allegations in the warrant refer to “’gifts’ given to abuse victims by the accused with instructions to pass on or give the ‘gift’ to a certain priest at the next school or church. It was said that the ‘gift’ was a form of signaling to another priest that the person was a target for sexual abuse,” the warrant says.

Another example of “illegal activity” outlined in the warrant documents: pool parties at which victims were allegedly told to “skinny dip” in the pool at the seminary, where they were often sexually assaulted or abused. The warrant says such gatherings were “a common occurrence,” adding that, “many sexual abuse cases occurred on archdiocese property.”

Though the allegations contained in the search warrant do not contain specific dates, most of the abuse cases date back to the 1970s and 1980s, if not earlier. After Hannan retired in 1988, Francis Schulte served as archbishop until 2002. Retired Archbishop Alfred Hughes served from 2002 to 2009 and still lives at the Notre Dame Seminary.

Schulte is deceased. Hughes did not respond to a request seeking comment.

‘Two arms in conflict’

The blockbuster development in the clergy sex scandal comes on the fourth anniversary of the bankruptcy case. At the time, some 30 claims and a dozen or so lawsuits had been filed against the church. Since then, some 550 claims stretching back decades have been filed against priests, deacons and other clergy by 330 abuse survivors.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Meredith Grabill immediately froze all state court lawsuits and sealed documents related to church abuse after the bankruptcy was filed. Legal experts say it is unlikely that the protective order would cover a search warrant in a criminal investigation.

“It is quite striking when a bankruptcy judge puts a tight lid on potentially incriminating documents and the State Police turns around with subpoena power and says ‘We want those documents,'” Berry said. “We’re seeing two arms of the legal system in conflict.”

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