Black Collar Crime: Catholic Priest Gerald Hechenberger Accused of Possessing Child Porn

gerald hechenberger

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

Gerald Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and school in Mascoutah, Illinois, stands accused of possessing child pornography.

The Belleville News-Democrat reports:

The associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and school in Mascoutah was taken into police custody Monday morning, according to the state’s attorney.

The priest was identified as the Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger.

“We have been working with Belleville (Police) and the task force for several weeks and we anticipate they will be submitting evidence collected pursuant to a search warrant we issued within the next 48 hours to be reviewed for charges involving Gerald Hechenberger,” St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said.

Earlier in the day, Belleville Police issued a statement saying a Mascoutah resident was identified as being in possession of child pornography, but the police statement did not identify the resident. A police captain confirmed that Belleville police officers were at the church at 419 East Church St. around 7 a.m. Monday.

A statement from Bishop Edward K. Braxton said Hechenberger was taken into custody by St. Clair County authorities, but did not say why.

“This is a very serious matter for Father Hechenberger,” the diocese statement said. “At this point, the diocese has no reason to believe that any parishioners are affected by this matter. The diocese is awaiting an update on information from the civil authorities, and has assured them of the diocese’s full cooperation.”

….

Holy Childhood School parents received an email Monday morning from the Principal Claudia Dougherty, saying Hechenberger was being investigated.

“Good morning, Father Jerry is under investigation. We will share more information when we have it. Your children are safe and sound — primary children are enjoying lunch! Blessings, Claudia,” the email read.

The email, sent at 10:51 a.m., followed a previous message from Dougherty sent at 8:15 a.m., which read, “Good morning, the Belleville police are at the rectory/church. I was notified that they were there, however was not informed as to why. Your children are here, they are safe and sound. Please know that we keep a close eye on all of them! Blessings, Claudia.”

….

In 2011, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported:

The priest at St. John the Baptist parish in Smithton abruptly took a leave of absence last week to address “very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges,” according to a letter circulated by the Belleville Diocese.

The letter, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, said the Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger spoke with Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton and agreed the temporary leave was necessary. The letter, sent to priests and deacons, didn’t directly state the source of the challenges.

“In the present climate, it is important for you to know that the serious matters we are addressing do not involve the abuse of a minor,” wrote the Rev. John McEvilly, the diocese’s vicar general.

It added: “It will probably be several months before it can be determined when or if Father Hechenberger will be able to return to parish ministry.”

….

The Daily News reports:

A Catholic priest with a checkered history was arrested on child pornography and drug charges.

Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger of the Holy Childhood Catholic Church in Mascoutah, Illinois, was arrested on Monday morning and held on $2 million bail.

Acting on a tip from the Attorney General’s task force, police seized electronic devices at the church and found multiple photographs and a video involving children under the age of 13.

“It is unknown at this time if Hechenberger produced any of the images himself, or if he has had any inappropriate contact with children directly,” the Belleville police said, adding that parents with suspicions regarding the priest’s behavior should contact authorities.

Hechenberger, who was charged with eight counts of possession and eight counts of disseminating child porn, was also found with methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

….

Hechenberger was charged with drunken driving in 1983 and driving under the influence in 1989, although both charges were later dismissed.

In 2004, Hechenberger pleaded guilty to trespassing after he was found shirtless in a parking lot, according to a police report cited by the News-Democrat.

On January 20, 2018, Hechenberger’s superior, Bishop Edward K. Braxton, issued the following letter:

May the Peace of Jesus Christ be with all of you!

I am writing to you concerning the very sad and distressing event of the departure of the Reverend Gerald R. Hechenberger, who had served as Associate Pastor of your parishes from August 15, 2014 until I relieved him of his positions on January10, 2018. Since he was arrested, taken into custody by law enforcement authorities, and charged with multiple felonies having to do with the possession and dissemination of inappropriate images of children and the drug crystal methamphetamine on January 8, 2018, I have been praying for all of you. I have been praying in a special way for anyone who may have been adversely affected directly or indirectly by his behavior. I am praying for Father Hechenberger as well. I am deeply sorry for the distress that these events may have caused you and your families, especially your dear children.

I am aware that you may have questions about many aspects of this scandalous event. I will answer some of your questions in this letter. However, I cannot answer all of your questions because, like you, I do not know the answers. For, example, like you, I do not know what the eventual legal consequences of all of this will be for Father Hechenberger. The Diocese has assured civil authorities of its full cooperation. I write not from a legal perspective but from the perspective of your Bishop. I write with a genuine pastoral concern for the personal and spiritual wellbeing of each of you and everyone in the Diocese of Belleville. For this reason, counselors have already been made available to the communities involved. I have also informed Father Wienhoff that I would be happy to meet with him and representatives from your parishes to listen to your observations and discuss these matters further, if that would be beneficial.

First, I must assure you that neither I, nor my Vicar General, Monsignor John W. McEvilly, nor your Pastor, Reverend Paul R. Wienhoff, nor any Diocesan personnel had any knowledge that Father Hechenberger had inappropriate images of minor children in his possession before the morning of his arrest. We have no record of any allegations of any prior possession of such materials. His files do not contain any expressions of concern in this regard from priests, parishioners, parents, or staff members and any of his previous pastoral assignments. We have no documents suggesting any past misconduct with minors. Our records show that he was compliant with our Diocesan Child Protection Policy through September 19, 2017, when his refresher course expired. Compliance includes clear background checks conducted by the Department of Child and Family Services, specific to child abuse allegations (CANTS) and a name­based criminal investigation through the Illinois State Police. None of his prior leaves of absence or sabbaticals were related to allegations of inappropriate conduct with minors.

Second, because of the serious charges filed against him, I have placed Father Hechenberger on Administrative Leave from ministry when I terminated his pastoral assignments. I further instructed him not to exercise the ministry of the Priesthood at any time in any place. Nor may he present himself in public as a Priest. Therefore, he is not to wear clerical attire including the Roman collar.

Third, when I met with Father Hechenberger at the St. Clair County Jail on Tuesday morning, January 16, 2018, he asked me to express to all of you how deeply remorseful he is for the pain, confusion, frustration, and anger that he has caused you and everyone in the Diocese. He specifically asked me to tell you that he has never physically harmed or abused a child in any circumstance throughout his years of ministry. He wanted me to assure you of his prayers for you and he asks that you pray for him as well. Obviously, considering the seriousness of his offense, he is aware that some of you might find his expressions of sorrow and regret to be insufficient to warrant your forgiveness, or even your prayers.

Fourth, when something of this nature happens, it is only natural to think that surely someone must have known that this was happening or at least that it was a possibility. But we all know that there is no fool­proof way of knowing what misdeeds a person might commit, even if they are receiving counseling for unrelated matters. Every human being is quite complex and some individuals might be unaware themselves of things they might do in certain circumstances.

Finally, I am aware that events such as this, involving only one priest, have the potential of casting a cloud of suspicion or mistrust over other priests. I ask you to remember that we are all redeemed sinners who must make every effort to avoid judging others. Please renew your support, concern, encouragement, appreciation and affection for all of our priests who serve you so unselfishly in this Diocese. Pray for them as well, as they pray for you at every Mass.

In this Sunday morning’s gospel, Jesus proclaims: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We all, priests and people alike, need to hear and heed these words, today more than ever.

Let us all pray for one another!

A March 1, 2018 Belleville News-Democrat report states:

Almost two months after a Mascoutah priest was accused of possessing child pornography and drugs, parents and church members say they’re frustrated they haven’t received answers from the Belleville Catholic Diocese.

Specifically, they want to know whether any local children were abused — and to what extent the diocese knew about the Rev. Gerald Hechenberger’s troubled past when they assigned him to Mascoutah.

The community also asks why the diocese won’t provide answers.

On Jan. 9, Hechenberger, former associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and School in Mascoutah, was charged with possessing and distributing child pornography and possession of methamphetamine.

“I think it would be a good idea to explain why this man was passed along and say, ‘why did you do that?’ and not just leave us in the dark,” said Sandra Parks, a former Holy Childhood school board member. “I just wish Bishop Braxton would explain why, in the light of these problems, you would retain and pass the problems along to the next place.”

Bishop Edward K. Braxton did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the BND.

Hechenberger also declined a request for an interview. He has been freed on $25,000 cash for bond after a judge lowered his original $2 million bail.

In response to the charges, a lifelong friend of Hechenberger’s, Anne Hannigan of Belleville, said Hechenberger has a drug problem and blamed the church for not helping the priest with his addiction.

“I think this is a high-tech crucifixion,” Hannigan said in an interview. “They said terrible things about Christ and they said terrible things about Gerald Hechenberger. Furthermore, the church cannot wash their hands in this blame game and the tragedy which has occurred in his life.”

Hannigan, who said she’s been friends with the priest for 40 years, said the church knew of Hechenberger’s alleged drug problem about five years ago and did not offer him help in fighting his addiction.

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10 Comments

  1. Ami

    Wait… he got busted recently but back in 2011 he was also under scrutiny?

    That implies that the church covers up abuse.
    Now Bruce, you know that’s impossible.

    I am not a violent person.
    But I might be willing to shoot a pedophile.

    Reply
    1. Lynn123

      Yes, it’s sick.

      Reply
  2. Mandy

    Here’s the updated article: http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article193820859.html
    I’m assuming the matters in 2011 are in relation to the meth, as he admitted to seeking a wellness program back then, and would explain the legal matters he had to attend to.
    Ami, if he was outed as a pedophile back then, I’m sure the church couldn’t “cover it up” even if someone wanted to, since the “legal matters” implies the law was involved. There are bad people in all walks of faith, in all religions. Please stop sarcastically dissing the Catholic church when you don’t know. The parishes he worked for are grieving as they trusted him, and they are part of that church you are referring to.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thank you for the link.

      As far as “dissing” the Catholic Church? It deserves all the ridicule it receives. If I was a Catholic parent with children, I wouldn’t let them out of my sight, and I certainly wouldn’t let them be alone with a priest.

      The Church has harmed thousands of children and adults with their coverups of clergy sex crimes. If you want the world at large to view the Church in a better light, I suggest you demand they quit protecting pedophiles or glorifying men such as Bernard Law — vile men who sacrificed countless children in their attempts to hide criminal behavior.

      Reply
      1. Matilda

        Mandy, you need to take very seriously what Bruce has written in his comment. The church has harmed many…please go online, or better still find a way of meeting abuse- survivors. I think you’ll find that 99% of them will say abuse ruined their lives or impacted them badly for decades afterwards. Then you need to demand your church and your denomination stop protecting pedophiles and you must campaign for justice for these innocent hurting victims whose trust was so badly betrayed by those who are supposed to be pillars of morality and truth. Here in the UK, my fundy DD is trying to plant a church in a rough area. She has had more than one parent say they will not allow their children to come to any church clubs…”because they’re all pedophiles in churches”. Is this the perception you want non-churchgoers to have of your beloved organisation? If I were still a believer, I’d be mortified this was the public image of my church and work very hard to alter it as suggested above.

        Reply
      2. Rachel

        Well said, Bruce.

        “There are bad people in all walks of life, in all religions” is a grossly inadequate response to what the Catholic church has done. The CC had a systematic global POLICY of not reporting child sexual abuse to the police. That was the clear instruction given out to all clerics: if you are aware of a colleague sexually abusing a child, or if you suspect the same, you absolutely must NOT go to the police.

        As for the parishes that are “grieving”, how about grieving a bit more about the people who were actually harmed while they, the parishes, were busy keeping the priest on a pedestal? The naivety and over-trustingness of so many religious people is exactly what enables abuse to flourish. Grow up, for the sake of the children among you!

        Reply
    2. Brian

      Mandy, you choose to carry on an illusion that the Church is above all the faulty humans who run it, that sweet Jesus is the real landlord and cannot be held responsible for what his property managers do. You live that illusion because it makes you feel better. But you might really be grieving because the actions of this sick man ARE the church you believe in and it hurts. There are bad people of all faiths? C’mon. you can reach a bit further than that can’t you? Maybe it is not church cover-ups that you need to face, Mandy. It is your own need to cover up what is plainly clear to others.

      Reply
    3. Ami

      If you’re sure the church wouldn’t cover it up, then either you’re living on a different planet or you’ve never watched/read the news.

      I can’t believe anyone anywhere has missed the coverage.

      And yes, assholes abound. In or out of religion. But just in my experience, there are lots more IN religion. If the parishes trusted him, I guess they’re not watching the news either.

      Reply
  3. Jen

    He was arrested in 2004 for hanging out at a local truck stop (neighboring county) without pants, while holding his shirt. Cops asked him to leave, and he came back. He also had a few DUIs. All solved with diversion programs. It’s a mess.
    http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article194235579.html

    Reply
    1. Jen

      Sorry… No shirt on… holding his pants. Oy.

      Reply

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