Metro-East News

Mascoutah priest sent and possessed child porn over seven months, charges say

The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger
The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger

A Mascoutah priest distributed and possessed photos and videos of child pornography from June 2017 through January 2018, according to the charges filed against him.

But the Rev. Gerald Hechenberger’s legal troubles date back more than two decades. He was cited twice in the 1980s for drunken-driving. And in 2004, he was charged with trespassing after he was accused of refusing to leave a truck stop in Madison, while shirtless.

Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and school in Mascoutah, was charged with 16 counts of child pornography and one count of possession of meth on Tuesday. He was taken into custody on Monday and his bail was set at $2 million. He remains in the St. Clair County Jail.

Charging documents detail 16 different photos and a video that Hechenberger allegedly possessed or distributed in the past seven months.

The photos involved boys and girls engaged in or simulating sexual acts with adults, according to documents. Two photos showed an infant girl engaged in a sexual act with an adult male. A video file showed a female toddler engaged in or simulating a sexual act with an adult male.

According to Belleville police, “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.”

Hechenberger was also charged with possession of methamphetamine.

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.

In 2004, Hechenberger pleaded guilty to the trespassing charge in Madison, which was an ordinance violation. He was fined $100 and placed under court supervision for 30 days, which meant he would not have a conviction on his record.

A police report says a security guard at the truck stop found Hechenberger sitting shirtless in a car in the parking lot. Hechenberger told the guard he was looking for the interstate, according to the report. The guard told Hechenberger how to get back to the interstate, and instructed Hechenberger not to return.

But Hechenberger did return, and the guard found Hechenberger’s parked car, unoccupied, the report says. A Madison Police officer wrote in the report that he spoke with a truck driver who reported seeing a large, white male “walking between the trucks, holding his pants in his hand and had no shirt on.”

The officer and the guard returned to Hechenberger’s car, where they found him standing next to it, the report says.

The officer wrote that he and another officer “asked Hechenberger what he was doing on the lot, with him telling us he had to go to the bathroom.” Police then took Hechenberger into custody.

In 1989, he was charged with driving under the influence in Swansea. 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.

Dorothy and Dean Smith have lived across the street from Holy Childhood Church for 15 years. The morning of Hechenberger’s arrest, Dorothy Smith saw two SUV police vehicles outside the church at 415 East Church Street.

Smith said police waited until the Mascoutah School bus that children were filing into had pulled away before bringing out Hechenberger, who was dressed in plain clothes and had a coat covering his arms, which were held out in front of him. An officer on either side escorted him to a waiting police car.

“They moved very quickly and flawlessly executed the arrest so if the Holy Childhood school children were around, they wouldn’t see their priest being arrested. I learned much later in the day he was a priest,” she said. “The Belleville, Mascoutah, state and any other police involved did a perfect job.”

Dorothy Smith, who has packed shoe boxes for underprivileged children for 25 years through Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child, said the experience only strengthened her resolve to do good for her community and others.

“It’s strange that I’m packing shoe boxes in my living room for children while this is happening across the street. What a difference a street curb can make,” she said. “Some people are givers and some are takers. I want to focus on the positive in this, I’m going to continue fighting the good fight even if it’s one shoebox at a time.”

Hechenberger graduated from Althoff Catholic High School in 1981 and from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 1988. In 1991, he started seminary school at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated in 1996.

From there, Hechenberger became the pastor at multiple churches in the metro-east. From at least 2003-06, Hechenberger was the pastor at Holy Family Church in Cahokia and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Dupo.

After leaving Holy Family Church, Hechenberger was the pastor at St. John’s Baptist Church in Smithton, from which he abruptly took a leave of absence 2011. In a letter to the church, Hechenberger wrote he was leaving because of 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 in 2011 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.”

Kaley Johnson: 618-239-2526, @KaleyJohnson6