NEW ORLEANS ( Associated Press) – The FBI has opened a broader investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans that goes back decades, a rare federal raid on such cases that specifically looks at whether priests have taken children across state borders to molesters, officials and others familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press.
More than a dozen alleged abuse victims were questioned this year as part of the investigation that could include investigating whether predator priests could be prosecuted under the Mann Act, a more than century-old law against sex trafficking that prohibits anyone from transmitting. state lines for illegal sex.
Some of the New Orleans cases under investigation allege abuse by clergy during trips to Mississippi camps or amusement parks in Texas and Florida. And while some claims are decades old, violations of Mann law in particular have no statute of limitations.
“It’s been a long road and just the fact that someone so highly believes we mean the world to us,” says a former altar boy who claimed his attacker took him on trips to Colorado and Florida and abused him since the 1970s. he was in fifth grade. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
The FBI declined to comment, as did Louisiana State Police, which is investigating. The Archdiocese of New Orleans refused to discuss the federal investigation.
“I would prefer not to continue this conversation,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the Associated Press.
The investigation could deepen the legal danger to the archdiocese, as it stems from a bankruptcy caused by a flood of sex abuse lawsuits and allegations that church leaders have turned a blind eye to generations of predator priests.
Federal investigators are now considering whether to seek access to thousands of secret church documents protected by lawsuits and protected by a comprehensive bankruptcy order, according to those familiar with the investigation who were not authorized to discuss it and spoke to the Associated Press it on condition of anonymity. Those records are said to document years of abuse claims, interviews with accused clergy, and a pattern of church leaders transferring problem priests without reporting their crimes to law enforcement.
“This is actually a big issue, and it should be encouraging for victims,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of Child USA, a think tank focused on preventing child abuse. . “The FBI rarely got involved in the mental sex abuse scandals. They have dragged their feet across the country with regard to the Catholic Church. ”
The U.S. Department of Justice has struggled to find a federal link to the prosecution of clerical abuse, and has hit deadlock in cases as explosive as those set out in the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report revealing a systematic cover-up by church leaders has. Federal prosecutors sued church records in Buffalo, New York, the same year in an investigation that also went silent.
“The issue has always determined what federal crime is,” said Peter G. Strasser, the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans who refused to bring charges in 2018, after the archdiocese listed 57 “credible defendants” “clergy have published, a timetable. An Associated Press analysis found was counted by at least 20 names.
Strasser said he “naively” believes a federal case is possible only to face a myriad of roadblocks, including the complexity of “hearing the church” for charges such as conspiracy.
But federal prosecutors have used the more narrowly focused Mann Act in recent years to win convictions in a variety of abuse cases, including against R&B star R. Kelly for using his fame to sexually exploit girls, and Ghislaine Maxwell for sexually abusing financier Jeffrey Epstein. teenage girls. In 2013, a federal judge in Indiana sentenced a Baptist pastor to 12 years in prison for taking a 16-year-old girl across state borders for sex.
Among the priests under federal investigation in New Orleans is Lawrence Hecker, a 90-year-old who was removed from the ministry in 2002 after being accused of abusing “countless children.” Hecker is accused of abusing children on trips outside the state decades ago, and other claims against him range from caressing to rape.
Hundreds of records currently under the confidentiality order “will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a series of child predators,” Richard Trahant, an attorney for Hecker’s alleged victims, said in a statement. court ruling written.
“Hecker is still very much alive, alive, living alone and is a danger to young boys until he exhales his last breath,” Trahant wrote.
Asked by telephone this week if he had ever abused children, Hecker said, “I’ll have to quit.”
More recent allegations are also attracting federal attention, including the case of Patrick Wattigny, a priest who was indicted by state prosecutors last year after admitting he molested a teenager in 2013. His lawyer declined to comment.
Wattigny’s removal from the ministry in 2020 came amid a disciplinary inquiry into inappropriate text messages he sent to a student. The case sent shockwaves through the Catholic community because church leaders regularly described the abuse of clergy as a past sin.
“It happened while the church was saying, ‘This is not happening anymore,'” said Bill Arata, a lawyer who attended three of the FBI interviews.
“These victims can stay home and do nothing,” he added, “but they are not the kind of people they are.”
Abuse of clergy is particularly rampant in Louisiana, a heavily Catholic state that has endured some of the earliest scandals dating back to the 1980s. Last year, it joined two dozen states that have instituted “flashbacks” meant to bring unsolved claims of child sex abuse, no matter how old, in civil court.
But with few exceptions, especially a former deacon charged with rape, the accused clerics escaped criminal consequences. Even at the local level, matters were hampered by statutes of prescription and the political sensitivity of the persecution of the church.
The Archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy case also froze a separate court battle over a locker of confidential emails describing the behind-the-scenes links that NFL executives to the Archbishop’s New Orleans Saints made in 2018 and 2019 for abuse. of clergy to contain scandals.
While the Saints say they only helped with messages, lawyers for those suing the church claimed in court records that officials of the Saints joined the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.” This included taking an active role in helping to shape the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused clergy, the lawyers argue.
Lawyers for those suing the church have attacked the bankruptcy offer as a covert attempt to keep church records secret – and deny the victims a public account.
“Those victims were on their way to the truth,” Soren Gisleson, a lawyer representing several of the victims, wrote in a court case. “The rape of children is a thief who keeps stealing.”
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