The FBI has launched a sprawling sex abuse investigation into the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans that’s targeting predator priests who may have taken kids across state lines to molest them and were never reported to law enforcement, it was revealed Wednesday.
So far this year, more than a dozen alleged victims have been interviewed by federal investigators and some of the cases include allegations that clergy members abused kids during trips to amusement parks in Texas and Florida and camps in Mississippi.
“It’s been a long road and just the fact that someone this high up believes us means the world to us,” a former altar boy, who claims he was abused beginning in the 1970s while in the fifth grade and on trips to Colorado and Florida, told the Associated Press.
The probe, which is a rare undertaking for federal investigators, is examining whether aging members of the clergy can be charged with violating federal law, including the Mann Act — a 1910 anti-sex-trafficking law that prohibits bringing people out of state for illicit sex.
Richard Windmann (left) and John Gianoli, members of the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, hold signs during a conference in front of the New Orleans Saints training facility in Metairie, La., on Jan. 29, 2020.AP/Matthew Hinton
While many of the cases stemming from the Big Easy happened decades ago, few have ever led to criminal charges, though the Mann Act has no statute of limitations. It’s been used to secure convictions in high-profile federal sex abuse cases, including against Ghislaine Maxwell and R. Kelly, who were both accused of decades-old abuses.
One of the priests being scrutinized by federal investigators is 90-year-old Lawrence Hecker, who was removed from the ministry in 2002 after he was accused of abusing “countless children.”
The allegations against him, going back decades, stem from out-of-state trips and range from fondling to rape.
The FBI has launched a sprawling investigation into sexual abuse allegations involving Catholic priests in New Orleans.Getty Images/Mark Wilson
As part of the probe, the FBI is mulling whether to request access to thousands of church records that detail the abuse claims and reveal the church’s pattern of transferring predators to other dioceses instead of reporting them to cops, people familiar with the investigation told the AP.
The documents, which were produced in civil sex abuse lawsuits against the church, are shielded by a confidentiality order that was brought after the New Orleans diocese declared bankruptcy following an avalanche of litigation.
Richard Trahant, who represents one of Hecker’s alleged victims, wrote in a court filing that the secret documents “will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a serial child predator.”
“Hecker is still very much alive, vibrant, lives alone and is a danger to young boys until he draws his final breath,” Trahant wrote in the filing.
Hecker declined comment when reached by the AP.
Marci Hamilton, the chief executive of Child USA, a think tank that seeks to prevent child abuse, told the AP the FBI’s investigation is “a big deal.”
“It should be heartening to victims,” said Hamilton, who is also a professor with the University of Pennsylvania.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans has declined to discuss the investigation.AP/Gerald Herbert
“The FBI has rarely become involved in the clergy sex abuse scandals. They’ve dragged their feet around the country with respect to the Catholic Church.”
Peter Strasser, the former US attorney in New Orleans, said the Department of Justice has struggled to bring cases against the Catholic Church because it’s grappled with determining “what is the federal crime” and the difficulties of “putting the Church on trial.”
The FBI declined comment to the AP, as well as the Louisiana State Police, which is assisting in the probe.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans also declined to discuss the investigation.
“I’d prefer not to pursue this conversation,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the AP.