A Catholic priest who was arrested Monday by Belleville police was charged with 16 counts of child pornography Tuesday.
The Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and school in Mascoutah, was charged with the following:
▪ Eight counts of dissemination of child pornography
▪ Seven counts of possession of child pornography (photos)
▪ One count of possession of child pornography (video)
Hechenberger, 54, also was charged with possession of methamphetamine.
Belleville police issued a statement saying Hechenberger was identified as being in possession of multiple images of child pornography where the photographed victims were under the age of 13.
Belleville Police Master Sgt. Todd Keilbach said detectives initiated the investigation based on a cyber tip from the organization Internet Crimes Against Children.
Police began an investigation that required “multiple search warrants, online investigative techniques and surveillance details,” according to Keilbach. Police executed a search warrant Monday morning at the Mascoutah church.
During the search, investigators seized multiple electronic devices and found drug paraphernalia, meth, and several images and videos of child pornography, according to the press release.
Hechenberger was arrested and taken to the Belleville Police Department. His bail is set at $2 million.
“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 press release said. “Although Belleville Police do not have knowledge of any additional victims, we release this information and encourage parents to speak to their children if they had any contact with Hechenberger. Parents or guardians should immediately report any suspicions to the Belleville Police Department.”
Hechenberger is the only person under investigation at the church, according to police.
A spokesman said the Belleville Diocese would have no additional comment. A statement from Bishop Edward K. Braxton on Monday said:
“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.”
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.
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.”