A longtime friend spoke out Thursday in support of the Mascoutah priest accused of possessing child pornography, saying she blames the church’s failure to get him treatment for a drug problem.
The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and school in Mascoutah, was charged Tuesday with 16 counts of child pornography and one count of possession of meth.
He was taken into custody on Monday and he remained at the St. Clair County Jail on Thursday on $2 million bail. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and court documents indicate he intends to be represented by private counsel.
Belleville attorney Anne Hannigan said she’s been friends with the priest for 40 years, having met him when they both went to Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville.
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“He has never, ever mentioned anything to me about having an interest in kids,” she said. “And I think he got caught up with some persons on the internet, and that’s how he ended up with the pictures. And he just did a stupid thing and it was a result of the drug addiction.”
Hannigan said the church was aware of Hechenberger’s alleged drug problem about five years ago and did not offer him help in fighting his addiction.
“I think this is a high-tech crucifixion,” Hannigan said. “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.”
She added that she does not believe someone should be incarcerated for actions they took while under the influence of drugs.
Local Catholic church officials did not return a call for comment in regard to Hechenberger’s past drug use, if any.
However, Holy Childhood Church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Paul R. Wienhoff, sent a letter to parishioners Thursday morning, the first time he has spoken publicly on the matter.
In the letter he expressed the difficult and stressful nature of the situation and said counselors were available for students Thursday.
A prayer service in the church was to be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Hannigan is not the only person questioning the church’s actions.
“There’s enough red flags,” Dorris said. “If he has depression and he’s found wandering at a truck stop and being charged with trespassing, that means he has some issues. Why would you put him in contact with some of the most vulnerable members of society?”
She added, “If he’s in bad shape, why didn’t they help him instead of throwing him back in the parish? That’s not doing anything good for the community or the parish.”
In 2004, Hechenberger pleaded guilty to a trespassing violation in Madison, where he was walking between trucks at a truck stop “holding his pants in his hand and had no shirt on,” according to the police report. He was taken into custody and eventually fined $100 and placed under court supervision for 30 days. Being placed under court supervision meant he would not have a conviction on his record.
Dorris said the bishop and the church need to take action.
“What should happen is, the bishop should be visiting every parish where this guy worked and saying ‘this is what we know,’ because parents need to be able to talk to their children,” she said. “This is where the bishop shows whether it’s all window dressing or if he really wants to protect the children.”
Red flags for troubled priests, Dorris said, include abrupt and frequent transfers of priests from one church to another.
In 2011, Hechenberger abruptly left St. John’s Catholic Church in Smithton, where he was the pastor. In a letter in the church’s bulletin, he said he was leaving due to depression.
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.”
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.”
From at least 2003-06, Hechenberger was the pastor at Holy Family Church in Cahokia and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Dupo before he left for Smithton.
“Nobody can look at a group of guys and say, this one is a child pornographer,” Dorris said. “But it’s about what they do when they catch one. The answer has been to move them, protect them, hide them, shield them. That’s their failure.”
Dorris said parents in the area, whether they attended Holy Childhood or not, should talk to their children about possible abuse.
“Please talk to your children, ask therm questions, ask them about photos specifically. Kids often don’t understand that the photos are criminal behavior,” she said. “Parents have to be able to talk to children and formulate the questions correctly. Listen to them and talk to them about it. Reassure them, ‘I’ll help you, you’re not in trouble and you did nothing wrong.’”
Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Belleville Diocese issued a statement on Monday regarding the allegations against Hechenberger.
“This is a very serious matter for Father Hechenberger. 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,” the statement read in part.
A spokesman said the Belleville Diocese would have no additional comment.
“Why haven’t they gone to other parishes and seen if anything happened there?” Dorris said about the church’s response. “These questions need answers, instead of, ‘Oh, sorry father left, we’ll pray for him.’ The answer is, talk to people so they can protect their children.”
Hannigan, the friend of Hechenberger, said she’s confident that Hechenberger does not have a child pornography problem, but rather an unaddressed drug addiction.
“I believe that if they had helped him five years ago with his drug addiction, this wouldn’t have happened. I believe it’s a product of the drugs and I don’t believe he took any of those pictures,” Hannigan said.
“I think there is kind of a hysteria going on here and it's not warranted. And there is an awful lot of hypocrisy going around.”