Sunday, May 12, 2024

Police Search Archdiocese of New Orleans Offices for Evidence of Past ‘Child Trafficking’

Louisiana State Police are investigating the Archdiocese of New Orleans for suspected past child trafficking by certain priests there, according to court documents made public last week.

While many Catholic dioceses have been sued by victims and investigated by police in recent decades, using a search warrant on a chancery is less common, and tying the investigation to child trafficking even less so.

Investigators executed the search April 25, looking for documents, letters, email messages and personnel records, including records pertaining to assignments and transfers, according to an affidavit filed in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans.

“The Archdiocese is actively cooperating with investigators and the terms of the search warrant,” a state police spokesman, Trooper Jacob Pucheu, said by email. “This investigation remains ongoing, and there is no additional information available at this time.”

The Archdiocese of New Orleans says officials there are cooperating with police.

“The Archdiocese of New Orleans 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,” an archdiocesan spokesman told the Register by email.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has 112 Catholic parishes, 44 Catholic elementary schools, 22 Catholic high schools, and more than 500,000 Catholics, according to archdiocesan figures

It covers about 4,200 square miles in eight civil parishes (the state’s near-equivalent to counties) in southeastern Louisiana. The archdiocese has a little more than 300 priests: about 200 archdiocesan and about 100 who belong to religious orders.

In 2018, the archdiocese released a list of 78 clerics with ties to the archdiocese accused of committing sexual abuse going back to the 1940s.

The list includes 18 accused clerics removed from ministry who were alive at the time of the report (14 priests and 4 deacons); 19 deceased archdiocesan priests who either admitted abusing or were publicly accused; 23 deceased or likely deceased religious-order priests accused of abuse; five religious-order priests removed from ministry in the archdiocese in 2002 who were accused of committing abuse elsewhere; and 13 religious-order priests (most now deceased) who were accused of abuse elsewhere but at some point served in the archdiocese.

Investigating Human Trafficking

Investigators say they are looking for evidence that archdiocesan personnel violated a state statute that prohibits trafficking children “for the purpose of engaging in commercial sexual activity.” 

The law defines “commercial sexual activity” as “any sexual act performed or conducted when any thing of value has been given, promised, or received by any person.”

Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told the Register that using a human-trafficking law to investigate a Catholic diocese is unusual.

“I think it’s a little unclear whether that statute actually fits, because it requires sexual exploitation for some commercial purpose,” Ciolino said. “I’m not sure it’s an absolutely perfect fit under the facts alleged. But that makes it an interesting angle.”

Police say they have found evidence of multiple sex abusers while investigating a 92-year-old retired priest, Father Lawrence Hecker, whom a grand jury in September 2023 indicted on charges of aggravated kidnapping, first-degree rape, aggravated crime against nature, and theft of $500 or more.

Father Hecker’s trial was supposed to start in late March, but was delayed to give time for his mental competency to be evaluated, according to, the website of The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. Testimony from experts who examined him in April is expected to take place in court on May 23, according to WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans.

In August 2023, Father Hecker admitted in an on-camera interview with WWL and The Guardian that he engaged in sexual activity with underage teenagers, but he denied committing rape.

In Father Hecker’s case, investigators, using a previous, more limited search warrant, found a 48-page document that showed that an archbishop of New Orleans “was aware of rampant sexual abuse through-out the Archdiocese” but didn’t report it to law enforcement, according to the April 22 affidavit supporting the request for the more recent search warrant. 

The affidavit does not name the archbishop or state the date of the document.

Father Hecker, who was ordained in 1958, served as an active-duty priest under five archbishops of New Orleans before he retired in 2002, at age 70.

The affidavit does not name sex-abuse suspects other than Father Hecker, but says the list is “numerous.”

Sex-abuse victims have told investigators that they were “transported to other parishes and outside of Louisiana where they were sexually abused,” according to the affidavit.

In some cases, a priest-abuser gave a minor victim a gift with instructions to give it to a priest at another school or church, as a signal to the recipient that the minor was a target for further sexual abuse, according to the affidavit.

Some victims, investigators say, were brought to the swimming pool of the archdiocese’s seminary and told to swim naked, which would lead to sexual abuse.

The affidavit does not provide dates for these instances of abuse.

The evidence uncovered to date justifies “further investigation into the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” the affidavit states. 

Why Search Warrants?

Some observers have taken the affidavit’s criticism of archbishops of New Orleans to mean that bishops or other Church supervisors are targets of the investigation, but the affidavit does not say that.

While many dioceses in the United States have been named as defendants in civil lawsuits over clergy sex abuse, only rarely have prosecutors tried to make a criminal case against a Church supervisor who did not himself commit physical abuse.

One case of a supervisor prosecution is Msgr. William Lynn, who in 2012 was convicted of child endangerment for his role in overseeing and transferring priest-abusers when he served as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s secretary for clergy. 

At his trial, Msgr. Lynn testified he tried to deal appropriately with priest-abusers but was stymied by the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (1923-2012), who died months before the trial.

Msgr. Lynn served nearly three years in state prison before his conviction was overturned. The case ended in December 2022, when he pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of failing to turn over records to a grand jury, according to The Associated Press.

Terence McKiernan, a board member of, said it’s hard to pin criminal cases on diocesan supervisors.

“These are difficult things to prove, and I think they are especially difficult with bishops because they have long-standing practices of handling these things sub-rosa,” said McKiernan, using a Latin term associated with secrecy, “and discussing these things rather than putting them in writing.”

In addition, he said, record-keeping is poor in many dioceses, and key documents are often scattered, missing or destroyed.

Even so, McKiernan told the Register that civil authorities executing search warrants on Catholic dioceses have tended to turn up more useful documents than those that merely asked for them, adding that, in some places, such as Michigan, that has led to more prosecutions of clergy abusers.

For that reason alone, McKiernan applauded the Louisiana investigators’ use of a search warrant, as did Stephen Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who has represented hundreds of clergy sex-abuse victims but is not involved in the New Orleans case.

“There’s absolutely no reason at all to believe that a diocese or archdiocese will cooperate in turning over inculpatory documents,” Rubino told the Register.

“They don’t even cooperate amongst themselves,” Rubino said.

As an example, he cited the Vatican’s November 2020 report on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who served as archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and later Washington, D.C., before Pope Francis in February 2019 dismissed him from the clerical state after finding that he sexually abused seminarians and others.

Rubino told the Register, “I participated in the collection of some documents for the writer of the report that were not provided to him.”