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.
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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.”
No criminal charges have been filed. A call to the St. Clair County Jail failed to confirm whether Hechenberger was being held there.
Belleville Police Master Sgt. Todd Keilbach said detectives initiated an investigation based on a cyber tip from the organization Internet Crimes Against Children. The tip reportedly suggested a person in the Mascoutah area was distributing child pornography, according to Keilbach.
Police began an investigation that required “multiple search warrants, online investigative techniques and surveillance details,” according to Keilbach. Police executed a search warrant Monday in Mascoutah.
Belleville Capt. John Moody said he could not comment on the investigation because charges have not been filed. He said police would be meeting with the assistant state’s attorney later Monday or Tuesday.
Belleville police said the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Illinois attorney general’s office were participating in the investigation.
Hechenberger also is an associate pastor at St. Pancratius Parish in Fayetteville and St. Liborius Parish in St. Libory. He could not be reached for comment.
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.”
According to published reports, in 2011, Hechenberger abruptly took a leave of absence from his position as pastor at St. John the Baptist parish in Smithton. In a letter from the Rev. John McEvilly, vicar general of the Belleville Diocese, church officials said the leave was to address “very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges.”
In a letter published in a church bulletin in 2011, Hechenberger wrote that he was struggling with depression.
“The medicines the doctors have me on make me very tired and some days it is a struggle to just get out of bed. As a consequence, I don’t feel that I am giving you the amount of pastoral care that you deserve,” the letter stated.
Hechenberger wrote at the time that he was not resigning, but taking a leave of absence. Hechenberger was assigned as pastor of St. John’s in 2006.
“I told (Bishop Edward Braxton) that I would like to take some time off from my regular priestly duties and find a good counselor or wellness program to join,” Hechenberger wrote.
McEvilly’s letter also stated, “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.”