Sunday, May 26, 2024

Frustration as trial of New Orleans priest accused of rape further delayed

A dispute over whether a retired New Orleans Catholic priest technically remains hospitalized or not is the latest reason his high-profile rape and kidnapping trial has been delayed.

Lawrence Hecker, 92, a confessed serial child molester, has been residing at Bridgepoint continuing care facility in Marrero, Louisiana, a facility across the Mississippi River from New Orleans that is attached to a hospital campus.

Hecker was hospitalized elsewhere in January – three months following his arrest on rape and kidnapping charges – for delirium brought on by a urinary tract infection and Covid.

But at a hearing on Thursday that was supposed to determine Hecker’s competency to stand trial, neither his defense attorneys nor prosecutors knew who ordered his stay at Bridgepoint or for what medical reason. The judge presiding over the case, Ben Willard, asked for Hecker’s medical records from Bridgepoint and set a new hearing for 13 June.

A spokesperson for the law enforcement agency which operates New Orleans’s jail said later Thursday that Hecker “was discharged to a long term acute care (LTAC) facility locally” and is still in custody “under 24-hour direct supervision”. The spokesperson, Casey McGee, did not answer why Hecker was not returned to the jail after his hospitalization months earlier.

Court-appointed psychiatrists who have been evaluating Hecker’s mental health said they needed information about his physical ailments before making a final determination. The resulting delay frustrated New Orleans’s district attorney Jason Williams, whose office obtained a grand jury indictment in September charging Hecker with a crime carrying life imprisonment.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of rapists and murderers in this building who would love a get-out-of-jail-free card because of a urinary tract infection – that’s not quite how the law works,” said Williams, who personally handled Thursday’s court appearance for Hecker for his office.

Williams said Hecker invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions 117 times in a secret deposition recently unearthed by the Guardian and CBS affiliate WWL Louisiana.

The eight and a half hours of testimony were taken in connection with an unrelated civil lawsuit accusing Hecker of child molestation. Reiterating prior accusations that Hecker is feigning illness to avoid going to trial, Williams said: “I think he knows his way around the court, around the system. And right now it appears as if he’s playing it.”

The attorney who took that deposition, Richard Trahant, represents the accuser in the criminal rape case. He attended Thursday’s hearing and expressed dismay that Hecker had been afforded another delay, alluding to how the last Catholic clergyman to be charged with child rape in New Orleans’s criminal courthouse – deacon George Brignac – died nearly four years earlier to the day after a series of trial delays.

“It’s just going to be another anguishing few weeks for my client,” Trahant said outside court. “He’s not getting better, and he’s not getting more cognitively able over time. So you know, I think it’s kind of a now-or-never question.”

Hecker’s attorneys declined to comment, citing a directive from Willard to stop giving interviews.

Thursday’s hearing came after psychiatrist Dr Sarah Deland and two colleagues evaluated Hecker in early April and wrote a report on their evaluations at Willard’s behest after questions over the priest’s advanced age as well as the January hospitalization.

The report from Deland, Janet Johnson and Shelby Buckley found Hecker has had short-term memory loss which prevented him from being able to assist his attorneys – therefore, they believed that he should not be tried for the time being on rape, kidnapping, crimes against nature and theft charges.

They recommended he should be treated for – and given time to recover from – various physical ailments before being re-evaluated for his competency to stand trial in a matter of months.

Willard set Thursday’s hearing to weigh if he would take the findings from Deland’s team as his own, which would all but certainly result in a trial delay that could be decisive for a defendant in his 90s. But Williams, arguing the case for the first time instead of his assistants, pushed for a new evaluation to follow up on the April review.

Hecker was brought into Willard’s courtroom in a wheelchair and almost immediately said to a staffer, “I’m confused,” and, “I don’t understand.” To stand trial, psychiatrists as well as Willard must deem Hecker able to understand his own court proceedings and meaningfully help his attorneys defend him.

Deland and Johnson met with Hecker behind closed doors a second time. They emerged with him after about 20 minutes, and Deland said, “It’s a mess,” before meeting in the judge’s chambers with Willard, prosecutors and Hecker’s lawyers.

The judge said he would delay the competency hearing to give Deland’s team time to be provided Hecker’s medical records for their review.

Trahant said his client tried to hold Hecker accountable shortly after the alleged 1975 attack, saying he reported the priest immediately to his high school principal, Paul Calamari. Trahant has said the school secretly provided psychiatric care to the accuser, but Calamari failed to report Hecker’s alleged crime. The local church later disclosed that Calamari also faced credible child molestation allegations himself.

Hecker has denied raping Trahant’s client. But in 1999, he admitted to church leaders in a written statement that he had molested or sexually harassed several children whom he met through his work as a priest. The church nonetheless allowed Hecker to remain in ministry until he retired in 2002 and let him collect full benefits until after the New Orleans archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020.

The archdiocese did not notify the public that Hecker was a suspected abuser until it released a 2018 list of more than 50 priests and deacons with substantial accusations of child molestation. And the archdiocese did not mention that Hecker, by then, had admitted to being a serial molester.

Trahant’s client reported Hecker to police in June 2022. In September 2023, shortly after Hecker gave a lengthy interview to WWL and the Guardian in which he stood by his confession of repeated child abuse, Williams’s office obtained a grand jury indictment charging Hecker in the case.

In a bizarre moment on Thursday, Hecker stared at Trahant as he was wheeled down a hallway outside Willard’s courtroom. Trahant sarcastically waved at Hecker, who smiled and waved back.

The Louisiana state police investigation that produced the criminal charges against Hecker has broadened into an inquiry over whether members of the archdiocese operated as a child sex-trafficking ring responsible for “widespread sexual abuse of minors dating back decades” that was “covered up and not reported to law enforcement”.