The FBI has launched an investigation into Louisiana’s New Orleans archdiocese over sex abuse allegations, according to a new report. Among other things, the agency is looking at whether Catholic priests took children across state lines to molest them. Historically, the FBI rarely gets involved in clergy sex abuse scandals. This new criminal investigation may represent a change in the way the United States government handles clergy sex abuse.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans already faces many allegations of priests abusing children. In 2020, it filed for bankruptcy, citing the number of abuse lawsuits against it. The bankruptcy filing put a hold on all individual civil claims. But bankruptcy proceedings don’t prevent the archdiocese from criminal investigation.
Investigation Focuses on Whether Priests Violated Anti-Sex Trafficking Law
The FBI is looking into whether priests violated an anti-sex trafficking law called the Mann Act. The investigation could lead to criminal cases against the archdiocese and clergy members. Already, the FBI has interviewed more than a dozen alleged abuse victims.
What Is the Mann Act?
The Mann Act is a federal law that makes it criminal to transport anyone across state lines for illegal sexual activity. The law has no statute of limitations. This means that the United States government can charge a person under the Mann Act no matter how long ago the violation happened. An institution (e.g., the Archdiocese of New Orleans) convicted under this law is subject to a fine. A person (e.g., a clergy member) convicted under this law faces a fine and up to 10 years in prison.
In one instance, a former altar boy alleges a priest from the New Orleans archdiocese abused him during trips to Colorado and Florida. Other cases under review by the FBI allege that priests abused children during trips to:
- Amusement parks in Florida
- Amusement parks in Texas
- Camps in Mississippi
Among the priests under investigation is the 90-year-old Lawrence Hecker. Hecker is already accused of abusing many children. The archdiocese removed him from work involving regular contact with community members in 2002.
The FBI’s investigation is ongoing. The public may learn of further abuse instances through future reporting and any charges the FBI brings under the Mann Act.
In recent years, the Mann Act has been used to win several high-profile convictions. Both the R&B recording artist R. Kelly and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell received convictions under the Mann Act.
Has a Priest Ever Been Convicted Under the Mann Act?
There is at least one previous example of a clergy member convicted under the Mann Act. In 2013, a judge sentenced a Baptist pastor named Jack Schaap to prison for taking a 16-year-old girl across state lines for sex. He was released in May 2022, having spent nine years in prison.
Investigation Comes After New Orleans Archdiocese Declares Bankruptcy
The New Orleans archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings don’t shield it from criminal action. However, these proceedings potentially pose a challenge for the FBI’s investigation because the bankruptcy court signed a confidentiality order protecting church records.
The FBI is considering whether to seek access to these documents. In doing so, the FBI may face legal challenges from the archdiocese that could draw out their investigation.
These records could become public if the FBI gains access and uses them to charge the archdiocese. The records are said to contain the following:
- Interviews with clergy members accused of sexual abuse
- Years of abuse claims
They are also said to reveal a pattern of church leaders failing to report criminal sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement. Instead, leaders transferred priests to different parishes to cover up their abusive actions. This is consistent with an already known pattern within the Catholic Church at large.
The Future of Sex Abuse Cases Against the New Orleans Archdiocese
As of March 2021, the New Orleans archdiocese’s bankruptcy case shields it from new abuse lawsuits. However, the FBI investigation may benefit survivors both in and outside of Louisiana.
The FBI’s investigation is broad and covers abuse that happened in multiple states. The exact scope of the investigation is currently unknown. It may reveal other cases of abuse outside of the archdiocese that the Mann Act covers.
The investigation may also suggest an increased willingness on the part of the FBI to investigate clergy sex abuse. This may result in criminal cases against abusive priests and their enablers. This may help abuse victims gain a sense of justice and encourage other victims to come forward with their stories.
“[W]hat is happening in New Orleans is a welcome change and something that should be replicated throughout the United States. We hope that this news will especially encourage any survivors who have been suffering in silence to find the strength to come forward, make a report, and start healing.”
Dolan, B. (2022, May 14). Prison releases former First Baptist Church of Hammond pastor. nwi.com.
Mann Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2421 (United States 1910).
Mustian, J. (2022, July 1). FBI opens sweeping probe of clergy sex abuse in New Orleans. Associated Press.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). (2022, June). SNAP applauds as the FBI opens a probe into abuse and cover-up within the Archdiocese of New Orleans [Press Release].