Monday, May 06, 2024

New Orleans archdiocese is target of child sex-trafficking inquiry, officials say

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans is the target of an active child sex-trafficking investigation, according to a sweeping and unprecedented search warrant Louisiana state police recently served on an organization that for decades has been submerged in the global church’s clergy molestation scandal.

The clerk at the state criminal courthouse where the warrant was signed released the 11-page document on Tuesday. It makes clear that troopers involved in a pending rape prosecution against one priest came to suspect that particular case was part of a broader pattern of “widespread sexual abuse of minors dating back decades” that was “covered up and not reported to law enforcement”.

In a stunning assertion made under oath, troopers said they had already recovered documents that “back” the notion that “previous archbishops, the highest-ranking official in the archdiocese, 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 warrant requests “ANY and ALL documents that pertain in any way to the sexual abuse of a minor by clergy members employed or otherwise associated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans”, concluding those “records are believed to constitute a violation of” the state’s law against trafficking of children for sexual purposes. It also seeks “ANY and ALL communications between the archbishop of New Orleans and ANY department within the Vatican pertaining to child sexual abuse”, among various other files.

The warrant refers to a 48-page memorandum first reported by the Guardian in summer 2023 which summarized secret internal archdiocesan records that the church was required to produce after seeking federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 in order to shield itself from a steadily growing wave of abuse-related litigation.

The memo recounted how New Orleans’ current archbishop, Gregory Aymond, repeatedly ignored his own advisers who suggested he discipline and publicly reveal the identities of multiple priests and deacons facing substantial, credible accusations of abuse.

Those decisions largely kept the public – and law enforcement – from learning of the accusations until they were reported by journalists years, if not decades, later. It also let clergymen facing substantial abuse allegations collect lucrative financial benefits that were not interrupted until a bankruptcy judge ordered them to cease, and then only partially, with health and medical assistance ultimately left intact.

Attorneys for victims of clerical sexual abuse gained access to the documents forming the basis of that key memo because their clients’ cases became part of the church’s bankruptcy proceedings. Those lawyers handed the memo to law enforcement in 2022, when federal investigators – assisted by state troopers – began investigating New Orleans clergy for possibly violating federal law by taking children across state lines for the purposes of sexual abuse.

The warrant released on Tuesday recounted how investigators had gathered statements from “multiple victims … transported … outside of Louisiana where they were sexually abused”.

“Additionally, it was reported that in some instances, ‘gifts’ were given to abuse victims by the accused [molesters] with instructions to pass on or give the gift to certain priests at the next school or church,” the warrant contended. “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 also described how victims reported being brought to a seminary that trains Catholic priests in New Orleans – adjacent to the city’s archdiocese – to swim nude in the pool and get “sexually assaulted or abused”.

“This was discovered to be a common occurrence, and it was reported that other members of the archdiocese were present at the pool at the time,” the troopers’ sworn statement maintained. “Although not all, many of the alleged sexual abuse cases or incidents occurred on archdiocese property.”

Such statements gave investigators reasonable suspicion “of previous widespread child sexual abuse [and] determined that further investigation into the archdiocese of New Orleans was necessary”.

The state trooper who obtained the warrant released on Tuesday was the same one who arrested 92-year-old retired priest Lawrence Hecker on rape and kidnapping charges that a grand jury handed up against the clergyman in the fall.

Hecker, who the church let quietly retire despite his acknowledging that he molested multiple children after meeting them during his ministry, has pleaded not guilty in connection with allegations that he strangled a teenaged boy unconscious and then sodomized him while they were at a church in 1975.

The warrant alludes to how the victim in that case reported his attack to his principal, Paul Calamari, “but no legal action was taken”.

Troopers’ sworn statement reveals that – during the course of the Hecker investigation – they questioned Calamari, who is described but not named in the document.

During that interrogation, Calamari confessed to molesting a child in the 1970s, an act which eventually led to his being included alongside Hecker in an archdiocesan-released list of priests and deacons whom the New Orleans church considered to be credibly accused molesters.

Since almost immediately following that roster’s release, clergy abuse victims and their advocates have argued that the list omits countless names which should be on it. The church has been forced to add more than 20 names to that list since it was first published, in part because of investigations by the CBS affiliate WWL Louisiana and its reporting partners that scrutinized clerics whose cases fit the criteria.

Aymond released the credibly accused roster as the archdiocese struggled to manage continued fallout from the worldwide church’s ongoing clerical sexual abuse crisis.

The search warrant is believed to mark the first time authorities have sought the entire written history of the archdiocese’s management of clergy abuse cases under its watch. New Orleans judge Juana Lombard signed the warrant on 22 April, and state police served it at a meeting with archdiocese officials three days later.

The archdiocese did not immediately turn over any records, according to a church spokesperson. State police had a prior, more limited set of records from the archdiocese in connection with prior court orders related to Hecker’s prosecution.

On Tuesday, the church spokesperson said the archdiocese of New Orleans “has been openly discussing the topic of sex abuse” for years. And “in keeping with this”, the spokesperson said, “we also are committed to working with law enforcement in these endeavors.”

The court clerk was not able to get a copy of the warrant served on 25 April until Tuesday as the police prevented the clerk from accessing the document and claimed the record was part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

The court provided it to WWL and the Guardian in response to a public records request.