Catholic women across the world are calling for a wide range of reforms to the church, according to the results of our survey of more than 17,000 Catholic women from over 100 countries published this month.
A substantial majority were concerned about the prevalence of abuse, racism, and sexism in church contexts, and many raised issues relating to transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance.
The International Survey of Catholic Women is one of the most extensive surveys of Catholic women ever undertaken, and its findings should inform lasting and genuine change in the Catholic Church.
The aim of the survey was to gather feedback on the experiences of Catholic women. It provides insights into the complex realities of Catholic women’s lives, the ways in which they express their faith, and their relationships with the institutional church. We devised and managed the survey along with Professor Tina Beattie from the University of Roehampton, London.
The large number of responses clearly indicates a desire by Catholic women to share their aspirations and frustrations, and to make their views on the situation of women in the Catholic Church known to the Synod.
Respondents identified themselves as women from all walks of life – single, married, divorced, LGBTIQ, and religious. While the findings cannot claim to be representative of all Catholic women, they articulate the diverse hopes and struggles of women in the worldwide church.
The views of Catholic women reflect the cultural and communal contexts within which their faith is experienced and practised. This diversity is rarely represented in church documents or theology, and many women struggle to see the relevance of church teachings to the complex realities of their lives.
Many women ‘conflicted’ with the Catholic Church
The survey found that even when women have considerable struggles with Catholic institutions, nearly 90% said their Catholic identity is important to them. Many continue to practise their faith despite ongoing difficulties with the institutional church.
Several respondents used words like “frustrated”, “hurt”, “angry”, and “conflicted” when describing their relationship with the church.
Most respondents said they would welcome reform in the Catholic Church, especially – but not exclusively – regarding the role and representation of women.
One woman from Australia observed “we walk the line of being valuable members of society but voiceless in many elements of the church”. Another, from Nicaragua said, “stop making women invisible”.
A minority of respondents expressed a preference for church reform based on a pre-Vatican II model of authority, priesthood, and liturgy. Vatican II was an important meeting of all Catholic bishops held in Rome between 1962-1965 who made progressive decisions about the future of the worldwide church.
Abuse remains a central problem
Respondents consistently identified the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people as a central problem for the church.
Some respondents disclosed experiences of abuse and harassment, while others expressed disappointment at the lack of effective action to address the crisis of sexual abuse.
One woman from Canada wrote:
they have a long way to go in dealing with the scandal and cover up. I know this firsthand. I feel as betrayed by the institutional betrayal as I do by my abuser […] This is coming from a committed lifelong Catholic who has never left the church.
Many respondents were deeply concerned about transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance. There was agreement that a less hierarchical and authoritarian model of the church was urgently needed, with greater collaboration and sharing of authority between clergy and laity (lay people).
A substantial majority of respondents identified clericalism as having a negative impact on church life. Clericalism is the idealisation of male clerics and subsequent abuses of power.
A respondent from Panama remarked, “I wish that women had more voice and that we were not abused by clericalism that excludes us and takes away our dignity”.
Most respondents linked their Catholic identity with social justice, and wanted church leaders to address poverty and marginalisation. Several raised the issue of economic justice in church affairs, including the lack of adequate pay for female church workers, both lay and religious.
The challenge for the Synod is to demonstrate that the many concerns raised by respondents in the survey are carefully listened to and addressed.
By NICOLE WINFIELD, GANTRY MEILANA and HELENA ALVES
The Catholic Church’s decades-long sex abuse scandal caught up with a Nobel Peace Prize winner Thursday, with the Vatican confirming that it had sanctioned the East Timor independence hero, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, following allegations that he sexually abused boys there during the 1990s.
The Vatican admission came a day after a Dutch magazine, De Groene Amsterdammer, exposed the claims against the revered Catholic bishop, citing two of Belo’s alleged victims and reporting there were others who hadn’t come forward in East Timor, where the church wields enormous influence.
Spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Vatican office that handles sex abuse cases received allegations “concerning the bishop’s behavior” in 2019 and within a year had imposed the restrictions. They included limitations on Belo’s movements and his exercise of ministry, and prohibited him from having voluntary contact with minors or contact with East Timor.
In a statement, Bruni said the sanctions were “modified and reinforced” in November 2021 and that Belo had formally accepted the punishment on both occasions.
The Vatican provided no explanation, however, for why St. John Paul II allowed Belo to resign as head of the church in East Timor two decades early in 2002, and why church authorities permitted him to be sent to Mozambique, where he worked with children.
News of Belo’s behavior sent shock waves through the heavily Catholic, impoverished Southeast Asian nation, where he is regarded as a hero for fighting to win East Timor’s independence from Indonesian rule.
“We are here also in shock to hear this news,” an official at the archdiocese of Dili in East Timor said Thursday, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Others said they would stand with Belo for his contributions to the country and its struggle for independence.
“We accept and submit to any decision issued by the Vatican on the allegation against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, whether it is right or wrong,” said Gregoriu Saldanha, who chairs the November 12th Committee, a youth organization established after a massacre at Santa Cruz during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.
He said at a news conference in Dili that “we will still stand with Bishop Belo, because we realize, as a human being, Belo has weaknesses or mistakes like others. If he does wrongdoing, it’s his individual fault, nothing to do with the religion.”
He added that “We cannot ignore his kindness and what he has fought for the people of East Timor. Belo is part of our struggle for independence. As a leader of the Catholic church, he has provided supports and solidarity for the people’s struggle.”
De Groene Amsterdammer said two alleged victims, identified only as Paulo and Roberto, reported being abused by Belo and said other boys were also victims. It said its investigation showed that Belo’s abuse was known to the East Timorese government and to humanitarian and church workers.
“The bishop raped and sexually abused me that night,” Roberto was quoted as telling the magazine. “Early in the morning he sent me away. I was afraid because it was still dark. So I had to wait before I could go home. He also left money for me. That was meant so that I would keep my mouth shut. And to make sure I would come back.”
Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with fellow East Timorese independence icon Jose Ramos-Horta for campaigning for a fair and peaceful solution to conflict in their home country as it struggled to gain independence from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in its citation, praised Belo’s courage in refusing to be intimidated by Indonesian forces. The committee noted that while trying to get the United Nations to arrange a plebiscite for East Timor, he smuggled out two witnesses to a bloody 1991 massacre so they could testify to the U.N. human rights commission in Geneva.
The Nobel Committee declined to respond to the allegations, other than to say it generally doesn’t comment on past laureates. In a recent exception, the committee rebuked its 2019 winner, the Ethiopian prime minister, over the war and humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region.
Ramos-Horta went on to become president of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. Upon his return Thursday from the United States, where he addressed the U.N. General Assembly, Ramos-Horta was asked about the allegations against Belo and deferred to the Vatican. “I prefer to await further action from the Holy See,” he said.
The United Nations called the allegations “truly shocking,” and said they must be “fully investigated,” according to a statement from U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Belo, who was believed to be living in Portugal, didn’t respond when reached by telephone by Radio Renascença, the private broadcaster of the Portuguese church.
Belo is a priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious order that has long had influence at the Vatican. The Portuguese branch of the Salesians said Thursday that it learned “with great sadness and astonishment” of the news.
The branch distanced itself from Belo, saying he hadn’t been linked to the order since he took charge in East Timor. However, Belo is still a Salesian bishop, listed in the Vatican yearbook by his Salesian initials “SDB” at the end of his name.
“As regards issues covered in the news, we have no knowledge that would allow us to comment,” the Salesian statement said.
It said the Portuguese Salesians took in Belo at the request of their superiors after he left East Timor in 2002 and because he was highly regarded, but said he had done no pastoral work in Portugal.
The Dutch magazine said its research indicated that Belo also abused boys in the 1980s before he became a bishop when he worked at an education center run by the Salesians.
Paulo, now 42, told the Dutch magazine he was abused once by Belo at the bishop’s residence in East Timor’s capital, Dili. He asked to remain anonymous “for the privacy and safety of himself and his family,” the magazine said.
“I thought: This is disgusting. I won’t go there any more,” the magazine quoted him as saying.
Roberto, who also asked to remain anonymous, said he was abused more often, starting when he was about 14 after a religious celebration in his hometown. Roberto later moved to Dili, where the alleged abuse continued at the bishop’s residence, the Dutch magazine reported.
It is unclear whether or when any alleged victims ever came forward to local church, law enforcement or Vatican authorities.
St. John Paul II accepted Belo’s resignation as apostolic administrator of Dili on Nov. 26, 2002, when he was 54. The Vatican announcement at the time cited canon law that allows bishops under the normal retirement age of 75 to retire for health reasons or for some other “grave” reasons that make them unable to continue.
In 2005, Belo told UCANews, a Catholic news agency, that he resigned because of stress and poor health. Belo had no other episcopal career after that, and Groene Amsterdammer said he moved to Mozambique and worked as a priest there.
Belo told UCANews he moved to Mozambique after consulting with the head of the Vatican’s missionary office, Cardinal Cresenzio Sepe, and agreed to work there for a year and expected to return to East Timor.
“I do pastoral work by teaching catechism to children, giving retreats to young people. I have descended from the top to the bottom,” UCANews quoted Belo as saying.
Efforts to reach Sepe, who is now retired, were not successful.
By 2002, when Belo retired as head of the church in East Timor, the sex abuse scandal had just exploded publicly in the United States and the Vatican had just begun to crack down on abusive priests, requiring all cases of abuse to be sent to the Vatican for review.
Bishops, however, were exempted from that requirement. Only in 2019 did Pope Francis pass a church law requiring all sexual misconduct against bishops to be reported internally, and providing a mechanism to investigate the claims, suggesting the new law triggered the Vatican to take action in Belo’s case.
It is possible that Belo’s sexual activity with teens was dismissed by the Vatican in the early 2000s if it involved 16- or 17-year-olds, since the Vatican in those years considered such activity to be sinful but consensual. Only in 2010 did the Vatican raise the age of consent to 18.
Belo is not the only church official in East Timor accused of abuse. A defrocked American priest, Richard Daschbach, was found guilty last year by a Dili court of sexually abusing orphaned and disadvantaged young girls under his care and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, the first such case of its kind in the country.
— As Catholic dioceses across the state are getting hit with hundreds of new child sex abuse lawsuits, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone remains the only California bishop yet to release an internal list of priests “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children.
By Michael Bott, Candice Nguyen, Jeremy Carroll, Michael Horn, Alex Bozovic, Grace Galletti, Roselyn Romero
Northern California’s most powerful bishop steadfastly refuses to release an internal list of priests accused of sexually abusing children, even as hundreds of new lawsuits hitting Catholic dioceses across the state suggest new depths to the church’s sex abuse scandal.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone remains the lone bishop in California declining to take the significant step towards transparency, and pressure is mounting for him to do so.
“When you don’t publish a list and tell people the truth proactively, it’s a lie,” said Dan McNevin, a clergy sex abuse survivor and local leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “And this is a religious institution that talks about morality.”
From San Diego to Santa Rosa, California’s 11 other bishops have posted such lists online, most of them following a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that found more than 300 priests across the state had sexually abused children and church leaders helped cover up their crimes.
Survivors, advocates, and attorneys have been pressuring Cordileone to release San Francisco’s list for years, but so far, he’s not budging.
“[We want] to call out and require the Archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Cordileone, to reveal the truth,” said prominent clergy abuse plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Anderson at a protest in front of the Archdiocese last year. “To reveal and disclose all the names of the offenders that have worked in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and have violated, raped, molested or abused children. Archbishop Cordileone, name your predators. It’s time.”
The Archbishop declined multiple interview requests to discuss the list, along with recent child abuse allegations against San Francisco priests. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese said the names of their accused priests are “already in the public domain,” but declined to answer follow-up questions about what exactly that means.
The calls for transparency come at a time when Catholic dioceses across the state are facing more than 700 new lawsuits made possible by a 2019 state law opening a three-year “lookback window” for potential victims to file civil lawsuits based on older childhood sex abuse claims. A June NBC Bay Area investigation found more than 40 Northern California priests or church employees are being accused of sexually assaulting children for the first time, including at least four priests who continue to work in the Bay Area. Those priests refuted the accusations against them directly or through attorneys.
A spokesperson for the San Francisco Archdiocese said they could not comment on any active litigation.
In the absence of San Francisco’s list, McNevin and SNAP have undertaken the task of creating their own, pulling names and information from lawsuits, criminal court filings, media reports and speaking with accusers.
SNAP’s list for San Francisco currently sits at over 300 names, the most of any Northern California diocese. The list grows longer as new lawsuits are filed.
“It’s nice to be able to discover a connection that might help somebody,” McNevin said. “The tough part is talking to survivors who are suffering.”
McNevin’s lists don’t stop with San Francisco. Although every other diocese in California has released their own list, McNevin says his lists far surpass the numbers from the bishops’ lists.
“We’ve gone through all these lists, and we have not found one that is complete,” McNevin said. “It’s a white-wash process.”
In all, McNevin’s lists for Northern California dioceses, which span from Fresno to the Oregon border, contain more than 600 names. Back in 2002, McNevin said there were fewer than 100.
On Thursday, SNAP plans on publishing a letter to Archbishop Cordileone demanding he publish a list of accused San Francisco priests. They also intend to make their own San Francisco list public.
The links below contain the published clergy abuse lists for the 11 other Catholic dioceses in San Francisco.
The Flemish bishops have taken an historic step in the Church’s ministry to gay Catholics by producing an official recognition of same-sex couples within the context of a prayer service.
Their bold move seeks to follow the pastoral approach of Pope Francis rather than the one taken by the Holy See’s doctrine office, which last year said the Church cannot bless same-sex couples. The initiative seeks to balance the pastoral care for gay Catholics while remaining within the bounds of Church teaching and loyal to Rome. It is also another sign that the Church is beginning to make a decisive shift in how it handles LGBTQ Catholics.
Crucially, the bishops say their initiative to couples is in line with the Pope’s family life document, Amoris Laetitia, with its emphasis on discernment, accompaniment and integration and demand that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity”.
They also point out that in Amoris Laetitia, Francis argued that an individual’s conscience can recognise what “God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” even if it does not live up to the “objective ideal”. In other words, unmarried couples or those in “irregular” unions can still make decisions based on conscience and undertake spiritual discernment and development.
“It is the first time that bishops say it’s okay to be LGBT and that this group is to be respected, have a place inside the Church and say ‘we give you a ministry, and a place of exchange and dialogue’,” said Willy Bombeek, who will be coordinating ministry to gay Catholics for the Flemish bishops.
Mr Bombeek is an openly gay Catholic who for decades had worked in Catholic education and as a spokesman for Flemish Catholic schools. Inspired by Francis’ call to give a voice to the voiceless, he started to explore ways for same-sex couples to be accepted and recognised but to do so in a manner that is loyal to the Church.
The matter needed to be addressed, he felt, because clandestine church services for LGBT couples had been taking place for some time. Mr Bombeek brought together a group of gay Catholics, theologians, and parents who produced a document that was submitted to the bishops. To their surprise, the bishops then produced their own prayer text and statement, which was published on 20 September.
The decision by the Dutch-speaking bishops of Belgium formally to recognise gay partnerships has already sparked an aggressive pushback from certain voices in the Church. Some even accuse the bishops of a “schismatic” act that defies Catholic teaching. But this claim has been dismissed by Church commentators in Belgium.
“The Flemish bishops are the last ones to be schismatic,” Hans Geybels, a theologian who is the former spokesman for the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels, said. “They try to keep in line with Rome.”
By coincidence, the bishops are due in Rome in late November for their “ad limina” visit, where they will have meetings with Pope Francis and officials in the Roman Curia.
The same-sex blessing topic is likely to be on the agenda, with the question focussing on the extent to which the Flemish bishops are in breach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 15 March 2021 ban on blessings for gay couples, which Francis signed off on.
That document emphasised that any blessing ceremony for gay couples “would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing” given to married couples. But the bishops have repeatedly stressed that what they have sanctioned is distinct from a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
There is also a theological debate about how far the bishops have formally given approval to the “blessings” of same-sex couples. The prayers to be said with couples asks that God “may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity” and at the end advises that a “Benediction” or blessing be given to the couple.
Nevertheless, there is enough creative ambiguity in the wording of the prayers, which makes them difficult to “pin down” into a neat category, while the service of recognition of a same-sex couple is described as a “moment of prayer” and is presented as a proposal.
The Flemish bishops have adopted a very different tone, style and approach to the Holy See’s doctrine department, which has produced several harshly worded rulings on homosexuality in recent decades.
He told the British comedian Stephen K Amos, a gay man, that giving “more importance to the adjective [gay] rather than the noun [man]” is not a good and people who “select or discard people because of the adjective…don’t have a human heart”. Even though the Vatican issued a document in 2003 setting out why it is “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions”, the Pope has given his support to civil partnerships, and last year Francis said the Church cannot give a credible witness to Jesus Christ through “legalism or clerical moralism”.
He made the latter remarks just a few days after the doctrine office had released their ruling on same-sex blessings.
Both Bombeek and Geybels said the Flemish bishops are seeking to respond to the needs of the local church and are not trying to implement a Church-wide policy. The Dutch-speaking part of Belgium has traditionally been very Catholic but, in recent decades, has seen a huge drop-off in Mass attendance and participation.
For years, the Catholic faith community of our country, in all its sections, together with other social actors to create a climate of respect, recognition and integration. Many of them, moreover, are committed in an ecclesiastical context or a Christian institution. The bishops encourage their collaborators to continue to follow this path. In doing so, they feel supported by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which Pope Francis wrote after the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Distinguish, accompany and integrate: these remain the key words.
With these words, on 17 March 2021, we, the bishops of our country, published a communiqué on pastoral dealings with homosexual persons and couples. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explicitly states that every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be respected in his dignity and treated with respect (AL 250). We want to continue on that path by giving this pastoral a more structural character.
Pastoral care and guidance
The pastoral attention of the church community concerns first and foremost the homosexual persons themselves. Along the sometimes complex path of acknowledging, accepting and living positively, we want to remain close to them. Some remain celibate. They deserve our appreciation and support. Others prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner. They too deserve our appreciation and support. Because this relationship too, although not a church marriage, can be a source of peace and shared happiness for those involved.
Their family and relatives equally deserve this pastoral attention and guidance. An attitude of understanding and appreciation is of great importance. Pope Francis explicitly asks these families to offer respectful pastoral guidance so that their members who exhibit a homosexual orientation can enjoy the necessary support to understand and fully fulfil the will of God in their lives (AL 250). Our focus should also be on the wider society and church community. Notwithstanding a growing social recognition of the homosexual fellow man, many remain with questions. At the same time, homophobic violence can raise its head. A better understanding can promote better integration.
The Flemish bishops want to anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons and couples on a structural basis. The policy team of the Interdiocesan Service for Family Pastoral Care (IDGP) will have an additional staff member to take this to heart. The bishops have appointed Willy Bombeek for this purpose. In addition, each diocese will appoint someone to look after the same pastoral focus in the context of diocesan family ministry. He or she will be the point of contact for that diocese. As interdiocesan coordinator, Willy Bombeek will work with them and provide them with the necessary training and guidance.
Pastoral of encounter
This pastoral focuses on encounter and conversation. Even believers who live in a stable homosexual relationship desire respect and appreciation. It hurts when they feel they do not belong or are excluded. They want to be heard and recognised. That is what this pastoralapproach is: their story from uncertainty to growing clarity and acceptance; their questions regarding church positions; their joy of knowing a permanent partner; their choice of an exclusive and lasting relationship; their firm desire to take responsibility to take responsibility for each other and their desire to be of service in church and society. In this pastoral approach, there is room for spiritual discernment, for inner growth and for conscientious decisions. Pope Francis calls for people’s conscientious judgment to be people to be valued and supported, even in life situations that the objective ideal of marriage do not fully live up to it: Conscience can earnestly and honestly recognise this which is now the noble answer one can give to God, and it can recognise with some certainty that this answer is the self-giving that God demands amid the complexity of concrete limitations, even if the full objective ideal is not achieved (AL 303).
For homosexualpersons or couples it is important to integrate in the community of faith. About that integration, Pope Francis writes: The important thing is to integrate everyone, to help everyone help everyone to find their own way of being part of the Church community, so that they would be personally touched by the ‘undeserved, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one should be condemned forever, because that is not the mindset of the Gospel! I address myself not only to divorced people and people in a new relationship, but to all, in whatever situation they find themselves (AL 297).
Prayer for love and faithfulness
During pastoral meetings, people often ask for a moment of prayer to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity. What concrete content and form that prayer can take is best discussed by those involved with a pastoral leader. Such a moment of prayer can take place in all simplicity. Also, the difference should remain clear with what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage.
For example, this prayer moment could proceed as follows.
• Opening word
• Opening prayer
• Scripture reading
• Engagement of the two people involved. Together they express before God how they
towards each other.
God of love and faithfulness,
today we stand before You
surrounded by family and friends.
We thank You that we could find each other.
We want to be there for each other
in all circumstances of life.
We confidently express here
that we want to work on each other’s happiness
day by day.
We pray: give us strength
to be faithful to each other
and deepen our commitment.
In your nearness we trust,
from your Word we want to live,
given to each other for good.
• Prayer of the community. The community prays that God’s grace may work
be active in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they
God and Father,
we surround N. and N. today with our prayer.
You know their hearts and the path they will take together from now on.
Make their commitment to each other strong and faithful.
In arguably the clearest sign yet that he is under active criminal investigation, a retired Catholic priest from New Orleans who has been publicly accused of molesting “countless” children but never charged has acknowledged that the FBI recently questioned him.
Lawrence Hecker, 91, declined to elaborate on exactly when FBI agents met with him or what they asked him as they reportedly lead an investigation into whether clerics serving a Louisiana region that is home to nearly half a million Catholics took children across state lines to abuse them. But, in a brief conversation with the Guardian, Hecker admitted that FBI agents had spoken with him.
“I told them I needed to speak to my attorney, and that’s where we left it,” Hecker said, apparently indicating he invoked his constitutional rights to be represented by a lawyer when interrogated and to otherwise remain silent during the talk with agents.
Hecker’s lawyer, Eugene Redmann, confirmed that the FBI at least interacted with his client at some point last week but would not comment beyond that.
“I just don’t have enough information, frankly, and additionally it was a brief encounter as opposed to any sort of in-depth questioning,” Redmann said of his client’s exchange with the FBI, which let Hecker go at the end of the meeting without arresting him.
An FBI spokesperson said the agency had no comment about Hecker, citing a US justice department policy against confirming or denying the existence of any investigation.
While Hecker’s name may not be known nationwide, in New Orleans, he is perhaps the most notorious still-living priest on a list of clerics who have worked in that area over the decades and were subject to credible allegations of using their status as a priest or deacon to sexually exploit and molest children.
The roster has swelled from more than 50 names to nearly 80 since the city’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, first released the list in 2018 as local Catholic leaders continued trying to manage the fallout of the worldwide church’s decades-old clergy molestation crisis.
Much of what is known about the allegations against Hecker came in the form of a lawsuit filed after that roster of accused clergy abusers was published. Lawyers for the plaintiff in that case allege that Hecker abused their client in 1968 while the accuser was a boy studying at a Catholic school in a New Orleans suburb, portraying it as just one act of molestation inflicted on a minor by “a serial pedophile who abused countless children”.
The lawsuit in question alleges that Hecker’s supervisors knew he had committed crimes for which he can still be punished because there is no deadline by which he needs to be charged for them, something that legally is known as a statute of limitation.
But, the lawsuit maintained, Hecker’s supervisors did not immediately report him to law enforcement authorities, saying the handling of his case was no different from those at the heart of the scandal that engulfed Boston’s Catholic archdiocese in 2002 and prompted the worldwide church to implement transparency policies as well as other reforms.
Hecker, in court filings, later denied the plaintiff’s claims.
Nonetheless, an attorney for New Orleans’ archdiocese eventually disclosed in open court that church officials first learned Hecker was accused of molestation in 1988 and that they later paid out at least four civil financial settlements in cases involving various accusations against him. Yet, despite abuse claims that were worth paying to settle, Hecker was allowed to work in the archdiocese until he retired in 2002.
Transparency policies that US bishops voted to enact that year should have resulted in Hecker being publicly identified as a strongly suspected child molester. But another 16 years passed before the archdiocese publicly acknowledged its suspicion that Hecker was an abuser.
Meanwhile, until the summer of 2020, Hecker continued receiving retirement benefits that included a pension, insurance coverage and – at least for a time – a church-paid apartment, which outraged victim advocacy groups who have long yearned to see him and other alleged but unpunished clergy abusers endure being criminally prosecuted.
Despite the church claiming it was morally obliged to provide such benefits regardless of whether the recipients were accused of misconduct, those perks were discontinued by a federal judge overseeing the local archdiocese’s request for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections, which the church argued it needed in the face of mounting abuse lawsuits and financial strains associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
The bankruptcy filing – still pending – indefinitely halted the lawsuits entangling Hecker and other accused clergy abusers, cases that were in general largely sealed off from public view at the request of church attorneys.
That bankruptcy-related pause in litigation didn’t prevent Hecker from sitting for a deposition in late December 2020 by the plaintiff whose lawsuit has revealed much of what is known about the church’s handling of allegations against him. And the plaintiff – who has long argued that Hecker is dangerous as long as he’s alive, no matter how old he is – requested that the contents of that potentially explosive deposition be unsealed so that the public had a full understanding of the case.
Nonetheless, after a closed-door hearing, the request to unseal the deposition was denied.
In early July, the Associated Press reported that the FBI had interviewed more than a dozen alleged victims of abusive clergy who had worked in New Orleans as agents opened an investigation into alleged sex abuse by church personnel there.
The AP reported that the investigation – which went back decades – was examining whether predator clerics could be prosecuted under the Mann Act, an anti-human trafficking law that for more than 100 years has prohibited taking anyone across state lines for illicit sex and has no statute of limitation.
The AP’s report noted that Hecker was one of the clerics that the FBI’s investigation was scrutinizing, having been accused of abusing children decades ago on out-of-state trips as well as misconduct ranging from fondling to rape.
Because of Hecker’s advanced age and how long criminal cases can take to prosecute in the US, many who track clerical abuse cases are uncertain whether he might ever face punishment. Multiple clerics who were unmasked as suspected abusers after the archbishop released his 2018 list have since died either without being tried or convicted, despite sometimes being under active investigation by authorities.