Wednesday 24 April 2024

US priest accused of raping teen in 1975 not fit to stand trial, psychiatrists say

A 92-year-old retired Catholic priest charged with strangling a teenager and raping him in a New Orleans church in 1975 has short-term memory loss that prevents him from assisting in his defense, according to a team of forensic psychiatrists whose findings could influence whether one of Louisiana’s most prominent cases of clergy abuse is ever tried.

In a report which has not been publicly released but was reviewed Tuesday by WWL Louisiana and the Guardian, the psychiatrists said the priest – Lawrence Hecker – should not be tried for now on rape, kidnapping, crimes against nature and theft charges until he is re-evaluated later.

However, the report found Hecker’s mental health is good enough that he could recover his competence to stand trial after a relatively short time. It called for him to be re-evaluated in a matter of months, after he is given a chance to recover from various physical ailments and to be given treatment by the state’s mental health hospital.

The mixed conclusions about Hecker’s legal competence come as his accuser – along with several of the clergyman’s prior acknowledged victims – await a 23 May court hearing in which Dr Sarah Deland and her team are scheduled to testify about the contents of their report. The judge presiding over Hecker’s case ordered the evaluation after questions over the priest’s advanced age as well as his hospitalization in January.

Whether or not New Orleans criminal court judge Ben Willard adopts the report’s findings and recommendations could dictate whether Hecker has his day in court this summer or much later. Additionally, whether Hecker can survive much longer is a significant question given that he turns 93 in September.

Judges frequently adopt findings and recommendations such as those issued by Deland and colleagues Janet Johnson and Shelby Buckley. But they are not bound by them.

A civil lawyer for the accuser in the case said his client was “frustrated and disgusted” by the psychiatric report on Hecker, arguing that the priest has repeatedly demonstrated “a lack of cognitive impairment”. For instance, Hecker granted an 18-minute interview with the Guardian and WWL Louisiana in stifling heat in August 2023 and acknowledged engaging in sex acts with multiple underage boys in the 1960s and 1970s, something he attributed to the era’s “sexual revolution”.

“Let’s hope this isn’t the final word,” attorney Richard Trahant said in a statement Tuesday. “Because it would be the tragic result of a serial child rapist being coddled and enabled by the archdiocese of New Orleans for many decades.”

After a recent hearing in the case, district attorney Jason Williams told reporters that Hecker was “malingering” – or feigning to be mentally ill to avoid going to trial. Neither his office, Hecker’s lawyers nor Willard commented when asked on Tuesday.

In the report, Deland and her team described how Hecker spoke at a normal rate and maintained good eye contact during their 40-minute evaluation of him on 4 April. He replied with Joe Biden’s first name when asked who the president was; knew Baton Rouge and Washington DC were the capitals of Louisiana and the US respectively; and correctly identified the current archbishop of New Orleans.

Hecker also said he understood that rape – one of the charges pending against him – was “sexual activity against someone’s will”. The report said Hecker had a good factual, rational understanding of his legal situation, one of two determining factors for establishing mental competency.

Yet Hecker performed poorly in a portion of the evaluation designed to test his word recall, forgetting all three terms he was given to remember after three minutes, the report said. Doctors concluded that such short-term memory loss compromised Hecker’s ability to help his lawyers defend him, the other factor for establishing mental competency for trial.

Hecker’s cognitive status could improve with time and treatment, the doctors wrote. And they recommended that he be placed on a list for transfer to the state’s forensic psychiatry hospital before being re-evaluated in a few months.

Hecker was rushed to the hospital with delirium in January, three months after he was arrested and jailed. A urinary tract infection as well as a bout with Covid brought on the delirium, the doctors said, citing records generated by a month-long hospital stay from 9 January to 9 February.

Trahant, the lawyer for the alleged victim at the center of the prosecution against Hecker, said his client reported the priest immediately to the principal of the high school at the time, Paul Calamari. The local church later disclosed that Calamari, now a retired priest, also faced credible child molestation allegations himself.

Trahant has said Calamari failed to report Hecker’s alleged crime, though the school provided psychiatric care to the accuser.

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 list of more than 50 credibly accused clergy in 2018 and did not mention that he by then had already admitted to being a molester.

Trahant’s client then reported Hecker to police in June 2022. And in September last year, shortly after his lengthy interview with WWL and the Guardian, Williams’s office obtained a grand jury indictment charging Hecker in the case.

Hecker would receive a sentence of mandatory life in prison if convicted.