A Mascoutah priest accused of possessing child pornography remained in jail Friday afternoon, even after a St. Clair County judge significantly reduced the man’s $2 million bail.
The Rev. Gerald Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood Church and school in Mascoutah, now could be released on bond if he posts $25,000.
Hechenberger was booked into jail Jan. 9 on 16 charges of child pornography and one charge of possession of methamphetamine.
He appeared before Judge Randall Kelley with his attorney, James A. Gomeric of Belleville, on Wednesday, where court records indicate his bail was lowered to $250,000. That means Hechenberger would need to post 10 percent in cash — $25,000 — to be released from jail.
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Along with the reduction, Kelley outlined conditions Hechenberger must follow if released from custody. Those included living at a specific residence, refraining from all contact with children 16 and younger, avoiding all electronic devices with internet access, submitting to drug and alcohol testing and abiding by a pretrial curfew of 5 p.m.
Hechenberger will also not be allowed to make contact with parishioners from Holy Childhood Church, St. Pancratius Parish in Fayetteville and St. Liborius Parish in St. Libory if he gets out of jail. When arrested, Hechenbergers was serving as associate pastor at those three parishes. Since his arrest, Bishop Edward Braxton has stripped Hechenberger of his priest duties.
An order filed by Kelley noted that prosecutors objected to the bond reduction.
Police documents previously obtained by the BND detailed the investigation into Hechenberger. Investigators say the priest used an email address with the prefix “subpigboy4u” to exchange images via the internet, paid to join porn-sharing sites, had leather chaps in his possession when arrested and sent messages to others seeking to exchange pornography.
Hechenberger went to Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, as did his longtime friend and Belleville attorney Anne Hannigan. She spoke out in support of the priest shortly after he was charged, blaming the drugs and arguing that he did not have a sexual interest in children but simply got mixed up with the wrong people.
Church officials have declined interviews with the BND, but have released statements addressing the charges. In addition, they have spoken to their parishioners during services, telling them to pray for patience and let the legal process expose the truth.
Parishes heard from Braxton at Masses this past weekend when a three-page letter written by Braxton was read aloud.
Braxton met with Hechenberger in jail and relayed a message from the accused priest.
“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.”
Hechenberger was not scheduled for any court appearances as of Friday afternoon; prosecutors planned to present the case to a grand jury for a possible indictment. An indictment, which is a more formal type of charge, does not require a preliminary hearing to be held for a defendant.
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