Two men representing the Holy Childhood Catholic Church in Mascoutah addressed the parish at the start of the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday to speak about one of the church’s pastors being charged with possession of child pornography and meth.
“When something this tragic happens of this magnitude, it affects all of us,” said one of the men. “There’s feelings and reactions within our parish ... of shock, confusion, anger, confirmation, embarrassment, understanding, love and compassion.”
The man acknowledged that parishioners may have questions: “How could this have happened? How come someone wasn’t aware of this? How could he hide these actions? What else don’t we know?”
“We have become an impatient society that is quick to assess blame, quick to point fingers and quick to condemn,” he said. “We should prayerfully ask for patience. The legal process will, in due course, expose the truth.”
The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger was charged Tuesday with 16 counts of possession of child porn and one count of possession of methamphetamine. He was placed on leave from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville and no longer is allowed to perform any duties as a priest.
The statement on Hechenberger ended with a church-wide prayer.
“Please continue to keep the parish, Father Paul, Father Jerry, children who are victimized by child pornography, and all children in your prayers.”
Belleville police first received a tip about suspected child pornography from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to a search warrant affidavit. There was no indication that Hechenberger was suspected of producing child porn or abusing local children.
Investigators found several messages where Hechenberger was allegedly sharing photos of himself, of adult pornography and of child pornography with other users on porn-sharing sites.
Details of the Hechenberger investigation are laid out in police affidavits obtained Friday by the Belleville News-Democrat.
The Rev. Paul R. Wienhoff, pastor at Holy Childhood Catholic Church, said the church community was “heartbroken” about the charges against Hechenberger. Wienhoff was not at Holy Childhood for the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass — he was celebrating Mass in St. Libory as part of the Diocese of Belleville’s parish partnership. Bishop Stan Schlarman celebrated the 8 a.m. Mass at Holy Childhood.
In this week’s church bulletin, Wienhoff said one of the first calls he received this week following the news about Hechenberger was from Schlarman, who offered his help. The Holy Childhood community is familiar with Schlarman, who helped the parish when Hechenberger was ill two years ago, according to the church bulletin. Schlarman recalled Hechenberger being in the intensive care unit of a local hospital; however, he didn’t specify what illness he had. Schlarman said it was very severe, and Hechenberger could have died.
Schlarman was the fourth Bishop of Dodge City, Kansas from 1983-1998. He was born in Belleville.
Below is the statement provided by the church from Sunday’s Mass:
“All of us are painfully aware of Monday’s arrest of Fr. Jerry. Issues of this nature, especially when involving the clergy, makes for a quick news. This incident was no exception with newspapers and television quickly covering the story.
“We are the body of Christ, this parish, this family. So when something this tragic and of this magnitude happens, it effects (sic) all of us. The feelings and reactions within the family, within the parish, and within the community have spanned the full spectrum of emotions. From shock, confusion, anger, disgust, and condemnation, to embarrassment, understanding, love and compassion. Our reactions have been all over the board.
“Right now there are more questions than answers. How could this have happened? How come someone wasn’t aware of this? How could he hide these actions? What else don’t we know? We have become an inpatient society that is quick to assess blame, quick to point fingers, and quick to condemn.
“We should prayerfully ask for patience. The legal process will in due course, expose the truth.
“What we do know to be true and humbly acknowledge is – we are a church of sinners. We all strive to be saints, but it is only through God’s merciful forgiveness that any of us will get there. Jesus came to call sinners. He died to forgive our sins. As Catholics, as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. To hate the sin – but love the sinner. We can forgive without condoning.
“As a parish – we are family, and a strong family. We have a history together, and we have weathered storms together before. And just as the Bible, the story of salvation history, is full of stories of tragedy, of sinners and redemption, our story is being written now. This is our chapter in the book of salvation history.
“Let’s make sure our story is one of understanding, of compassion, of forgiveness and of redemption. Let’s stand together as a faithful community. Let’s make sure this draws us closer to God, and doesn’t pull us apart.
“We are the body of Christ. Let’s insure (sic) that how we handle this in the community reflects that. Our comments, our answers to our neighbors questions, our discussions with friends should reflect our faith.
“We also acknowledge the pain this has caused many people, but especially how it weighs on our pastor. Let’s make sure he knows how much he is loved and appreciated.
“We also acknowledge the power of prayer. At the end of each pew are copies of our parish prayer of healing. Please take a copy home with you. We would ask that you say this prayer at least daily – and maybe several times a day. When God‘s people join their prayers together – it can move mountains.
“Please grab a copy and let’s pray together –
“‘Parish prayer for healing:
“Heavenly Father – heal our parish, our priest, and our families. By your Divine Mercy, transform us into the people you had always hoped we would be. Draw us closer to you, and send your Holy Spirit to heal, renew and the restore us. We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord and Healer. Amen.’
Thank you, as always, for all that you do as a part of our parish family. Please continue to keep the parish, Fr. Paul, Fr. Jerry, children who are victimized by child pornography, and all children in your prayers. Have a blessed day – and now let’s worship together.”