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.
“I'm going to raise some difficult points which I'm certain I'll be chastised for within this small community,” former Holy Childhood member Kevin Kraljev said. “Hechenberger is a meth addict busted with 16 counts regarding child pornography — and he worked about 200 feet away from Holy Childhood School where my sons attended years ago.”
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.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said as of Feb. 26, authorities had not received any information indicating Hechenberger’s charges involved local children.
“If any parents or anyone else has information that is of concern to them, they should immediately report it to the Belleville Police Department,” Kelly said.
A troubled past
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.
Officials have not said whether the diocese knew of that arrest.
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 response to Hechenberger’s departure in 2011, the Rev. John McEvilly, vicar general of the Belleville Diocese, wrote a letter stating the leave was to address “very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges.”
It is not clear what legal challenges Hechenberger was facing.
Parks, who was on the Holy Childhood School Board for about eight years, sent her four children through the school. She said Hechenberger’s arrest has made her question the diocese’s decision to place him at the church in light of his past.
“I think the diocese had an obligation to the parishioners and children of the parish to not send him here. I think that should have been their first priority, so in a way, I think this was preventable,” she said. “The children’s personal safety has to come first. I’m sorry, there’s no excuse.”
Hechenberger’s history in the Catholic church includes:
Prior to 1999 — 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
“I don’t see the Christianity in passing a troubled person from small town to small town, not for the parish the person is passed to or for the person either,” Parks said. “There’s no treatment, just passing him along, there is no caring in that for this man with these problems and there’s no caring for the parishioners of the next place. Or the last place he was, for that matter.”
Parks said regardless of whether Hechenberger has a mental illness or addiction, “every step should have been taken to assure that treatment was provided, but I don’t think he should have been made a priest after all of that.”
Kraljev, the Mascoutah resident, said Hechenberger’s past makes him question why the priest was at Holy Childhood at all.
“In light of what has unfolded here in Mascoutah, I'd like to know what these 'very serious challenges' were back in 2011. I'd like to know why the guy was shipped to Mascoutah, and who allowed it.” Kraljev said.
He added: “What were those serious challenges in 2011? And if they were so serious, did they have anything to do with drugs and children, like these new charges? And if so, who made the decision to take this man and put him in a position of authority again?”
‘They should be held accountable’
Besides his most recent charges, Hechenberger was charged in 1989 with driving under the influence in Swansea when he was 25 years old. That charge was dismissed after he completed a period of court supervision.
In 1983, he was charged with drunken driving in Caseyville. That charge was dismissed by a judge.
“I feel parents and community members, after all this has come to light with these allegations of child pornography, drug addiction problems, a drinking problem that dates back a long time, someone should answer these questions about what issues were there in 2011. It’s the elephant in the room,” Kraljev said.
When asked if the diocese was aware of Hechenberger’s legal troubles, diocesan officials did not respond.
“I’m certain the Belleville Diocese knows, and they should be held accountable and answer these difficult questions,” Kraljev said. “And yet… my understanding is that the Belleville Diocese seems pretty silent over the matter - other than stating they’re cooperating with law enforcement.”
Those who question why Hechenberger was placed in Mascoutah in light of his past are asking for something else: accountability from those who allowed him to be put there.
“I just can’t comprehend how all of this was swept under the rug, because if he’s doing all this stuff in 2004, to me that is a problem. And in 2011, there were admitted problems,” Parks said.
Parks said she and the other board members of Holy Childhood went through rigorous training in the late ‘90s on how to spot child abuse in the school. She said they all were reminded continuously if they saw anything suspicious to report it.
And yet, she said, Hechenberger’s issues seem like they were not fully addressed by the church.
“Nowhere did it (the training) say the bishop could move them to a different parish, or you weren’t supposed to report it. You’re a mandated reporter,” she said. “There’s other places where if you wanted to remain a priest and if you wanted to give him ‘another chance,’ then put him in a diocese office, not with children.”
Left in the dark
After Hechenberger’s arrest, Braxton wrote a letter that was read to parishioners at weekend Masses. The letter stated no diocesan personnel had any knowledge that Hechenberger had “inappropriate images of minor children in his possession before the morning of his arrest.”
Braxton also wrote, “We have no record of any allegations of any prior possession of such materials,” and Hechenberger’s files “do not contain any concern in this regard or any documents suggesting past misconduct with minors.”
The letter did not mention Hechenberger’s arrest at the truck stop in 2004 or his leave from Smithton in 2011.
“I think it would be a good idea to say why this man was passed along, to say why you did that and not just leave us in the dark,” Parks said.
The Catholic Church addressed widespread sexual abuse in the church in 2005 in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In 2011, further revisions in the charter stressed the need for transparency within the church when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.
Article 7 of the charter states; “Dioceses/eparchies are to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved.”
The day of Hechenberger’s arrest, Holy Childhood Principal Claudia Dougherty told parents in an email that Belleville police were at the church, but she “was not informed as to why.”
Dougherty said she was not able to comment further.
Parks said to her knowledge, teachers at Holy Childhood were “definitely concerned and upset” when Hechenberger was arrested.
Dual offenders: Child abuse and child porn
Some community members say they are concerned their children were put at risk of being abused by placement of Hechenberger in Mascoutah.
Chip Etling, who has lived across the street from Holy Childhood for 22 years, said the community deserves answers.
“Knowing the reverend’s past, why would Bishop Braxton put (him) here, jeopardizing the church, the children and our neighborhood? That is what I want to know,” Etling wrote in a message. “Just can’t understand why a bishop who the Catholic people/all people look up to would jeopardize us with a man with horrible character and past. … We deserve an answer.”
Hechenberger used an email address with the prefix “subpigboy4u” to exchange images via the Internet, according to police documents, and paid to join porn-sharing sites and sent messages to others seeking to exchange pornography.
While Kelly, the state’s attorney, said law enforcement has no evidence of any impropriety involving children at the school, people who view and distribute child pornography have a higher probability of sexually abusing children, according to Crimes Against Children Director David Finkelhor.
“Obviously, somebody who has been downloading child pornography is at substantially greater risk than ordinary people to have committed an offense or go on to commit an offense,” he said. “Because they clearly have a sexual interest in children and are willing to violate some laws to satisfy that interest.”
Speaking generally, Finkelhor said certain factors also increase the probability that someone charged with child pornography sexually abused children or would have gone on to do so.
“The kinds of risk factors that are probably most associated with increased risk are things like history of other criminal offenses and a focus on young children,” he said.
In a 2005 study, the Crimes against Children Research Center found that about 20 percent of people investigated by police for possessing child pornography also had inappropriate sexual contact with children.
The study says, however, this may be a “conservative number” since it does not include cases where investigators had suspicions of sexual victims but could not prove them or where victims did not press charges.
Other studies found even higher percentages of child pornography offenders who also sexually abused children.
A 2009 study of prisoners in the Federal Bureau of Prisons sex offender treatment program found that 85 percent of 155 convicted sex offenders had committed at least one "hands on sexual offense."
Factors, such as substance abuse and criminal history, increase those chances, according to the organization Crimes Against Children.
A study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City focused on child abuse committed within the Catholic Church. According to the study, nearly one in three priests who had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor showed a history of substance abuse, questions about his “fitness for ministry” or behavioral problems.
In the search of Hechenberger’s home, police reportedly found methamphetamine.
Kraljev said it concerns him that Hechenberger “was in reach of all these children — these are families that grew up with our own family and children.”
Silence sends ‘a strong message’
Braxton is not being forthright about investigations into Hechenberger, said Barbara Dorris, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. By doing so, she feels, he is sending a message of complacency to predators and victims of abuse alike, she said.
“Predators watch how a community responds to allegations and what the people in power do. By stonewalling and refusing to be open and honest, Bishop Braxton is sending a strong message to kids being abused today that people in power are going to side with the predator or sweep it under the rug,” Dorris said.
She added this behavior could discourage children from coming forward if they have been abused.
“Why would any child want to talk because telling isn’t going to work. He’s saying to them (the children), ‘Ha ha, no, we’re going to side with the predators,’” she said. “You have to look at the accusations and say, what can we do to make it easier for a child to come forward?”
She added: “Nobody can look at a group of guys and say, this one is a child pornographer. 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.”
Impact on the church
The Rev. James Buerster, of Germantown’s St. Boniface Church, said the situation has been difficult for everyone in the community.
“In general people are hurt, disappointed by it. It’s a difficult situation any time a bishop has to deal with activities like that, it’s very, very hard for the bishop and people in the chancery office to try to do what’s right for the person,” he said.
“It’s easy to want to point fingers. Someone, somewhere along the way, things broke down. They try to do their best, given the circumstances, given what they’re dealing with.”
Parks, the former school board member, said Hechenberger’s arrest caused confusion and hurt among the church and its members, especially the church’s pastor, the Rev. Paul Wienhoff.
“We have a very decent man as the head priest and he didn’t know anything and comes out… to find the rectory surrounded and searched. That had to be very hard for him,” Parks said.
When asked whether he would like to comment on the story, Wienhoff said in an email he felt it might be too soon and "we're still sorting through all of this."
The Rev. Leo Hayes, a retired Belleville priest, said he thinks the court system will lead to the truth, but either way the situation is complicated.
“If what they say about Father Jerry is true, it is a terrible thing. If what they say about him is not true, it is a terrible thing. It’s a terrible time and a terrible situation,” he said.
When asked about Hechenberger being allowed to continue as a priest despite past problems, Hayes referred to his experience as a chaplain at the Menard Penitentiary for 25 years.
“When do you dump someone and when do you stand by them? What you have to do when faced with people who do serious wrong is separate wrong from the person and continue to love the person and hate the wrong,” he said.
“You have to let the person know they are still loved. And if they know that, they can hopefully love themselves. Only when they love themselves can they turn themselves around and change things in the future.”
Kraljev, the Mascoutah resident, takes a different view.
“After everything recently coming to light with child porn and meth, then somebody should be held accountable to explain what happened in 2011. Was it related? If it was, shame on you for allowing him to work amongst small children and adults in another small town.”
Kaley Johnson: 618-239-2526, @KaleyJohnson6
The Belleville Diocese has had other sexual abuse allegations involving priests.
This is not the first time a Belleville Diocese priest has been accused of inappropriate behavior involving children.
In 2010, the Rev. Albert E. “Gene” Kreher, a retired priest in the Belleville Diocese, admitted he regularly slept with but did not molest a 13-year-old boy three decades ago who sought help and later became a priest himself.
Kreher said in response to his admission, Braxton told Kreher to write a letter of apology to the priest but kept him on as the overseer of the local Boy Scouts Council.
In 2008, James Wisniewski, of Champaign, won a nine-year legal battle after after a judge found the diocese knowingly covered up sexual abuse committed against him by a priest. Wisniewski said he was sexually abused dozens of times by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki over five years in the 1970s and the diocese quietly moved Kownacki from parish to parish without notifying anyone.
The court ordered that $6.3 million be paid to Wisniewski in damages. In 2005, Braxton faced backlash from the community and in his own diocese when he attempted to appeal the case after its original verdict.
In the 1990s, 11 priests and one deacon were removed from their ministries after a Diocesan Review Board received allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests going from 20 years or more.