For the first time, parishioners at the three parishes where a Mascoutah priest was charged with child porn and meth possession heard from Diocese of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton at Masses this past weekend.
A three-page letter written by Braxton was read to parishioners at Holy Childhood Parish in Mascoutah, St. Pancratius Parish in Fayetteville, and St. Liborius Parish in St. Libory during Jan. 20 and Jan. 21 Masses.
The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger, an associate pastor at all three churches, was charged Jan. 9 with 16 counts of possession of child pornography and one count of possession of methamphetamine. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Hechenberger declined a request for an interview as did his lawyer James Gomric Jr.
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Braxton, who has not responded to a Belleville News-Democrat interview request, described the recent events surrounding Hechenberger as “very sad and distressing” in his letter.
Braxton met with Hechenberger at the St. Clair County Jail, where he remains, on Jan. 16, according to the letter. “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,” Braxton wrote. “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.”
Braxton said he has been praying for the parishioners of Hechenberger’s three parishes since the priest’s arrest.
“I have been praying in a special way for anyone who may have been adversely affected directly or indirectly by his behavior,” Braxton wrote in the letter. “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.”
Braxton said he would try to address some questions parishioners have in his letter. “However, I cannot answer all of your questions because, like you, I do not know the answers,” he wrote. “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.”
Hechenberger was arrested Jan. 8 at Holy Childhood in Mascoutah.
“We have no record of any allegations of any prior possession of such materials,” Braxton wrote. “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.”
Diocesan records show Hechenberger was compliant with the Diocesan Child Protection Policy through Sept. 19, 2017, when his refresher course expired, according to Braxton.
Compliance, Braxton said, includes clear background checks by the Department of Child and Family Services, specific to child abuse allegations, and by the Illinois State Police related to criminal investigations.
None of his prior leaves of absence or sabbaticals were related to allegations of inappropriate conduct with minors.
Bishop Edward Braxton wrote in a letter about Gerald Hechenberger
Hechenberger has jumped between multiple parishes during his time as a priest. His role at churches in Mascoutah, Fayetteville and St. Libory was his fifth appointment since he was ordained in 1996.
“None of his prior leaves of absence or sabbaticals were related to allegations of inappropriate conduct with minors,” Braxton wrote in the letter.
The diocese will cooperate fully with the Hechenberger investigation, said Braxton, who placed Hechenberger on administrative leave Jan. 10. He is not allowed to perform any duties as a priest.
As their bishop, Braxton wrote in his letter that he has “a genuine pastoral concern for the personal and spiritual well being of each of you and everyone in the Diocese of Belleville. For this reason, counselors have already been made available to the communities involved.”
He said he has informed Wienhoff, the main pastor at all three parishes where Hechenberger served, that he would be available to meet with him and representatives from the parishes.
In closing, Braxton again reassured parishioners that no one had prior knowledge of Hechenberger’s criminal activities. “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,” Braxton wrote. “But we all know that there is no fool-proof 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.”
He also asks parishioners to not mistrust all other priests over the actions of one individual priest.
“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.”
At a glance
This is the Rev. Gerald Hechenberger’s history in the Catholic Church:
- June 1996 — Ordained as a priest by Bishop Wilton Gregory
- July 1996 — Parochial Vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Olney, Illinois, and St. Joseph Parish in Stringtown, Illinois
- February 1997 — Pastor of St. Edward Parish in Fairfield, Illinois, and St. Sebastian Parish in St. Sebastian, Illinois
- July 1999 — Pastor of Holy Family Parish in Cahokia and Sacred Heart Parish in Dupo
- January 2005 — On Sabbatical
- July 2006 — Pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Smithton
- January 2011 — Extended leave of absence
- August 2014 — Parochial Vicar at Holy Childhood Parish in Mascoutah; St. Pancratius Parish in Fayetteville; and St. Liborius Parish in St. Libory
Information provided by the Diocese of Belleville