As past alleged misconduct with high school girl resurfaces, Brother Martin chaplain retires

NEW ORLEANS (LA) [New Orleans, LA]

January 18, 2022

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

The chaplain at Brother Martin High School abruptly left his post earlier this month, just days after the school was notified of allegations that he kissed and fondled a Mt. Carmel Academy senior in 1990 while serving at another local Catholic institution, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation.

The Rev. Paul Hart was assigned by Archbishop Gregory Aymond to serve as Brother Martin’s chaplain in 2017, after a church investigation four years earlier confirmed the sexual misconduct but determined the student was not a minor under church law.

Reached by phone, Hart said his retirement from the all-boys high school, as well as from his job as director of retreats at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, was due to his ongoing battle with brain cancer. The archdiocese said the same. 

But the picture appears far more complicated.

According to multiple sources, Brother Martin was unaware of the past abuse claims and was tipped off early this month. 

Then, on Jan. 13, the archdiocese was formally asked to notify the school of the church investigation into claims Hart had engaged in sexual contact with a student. She was 17, and he was in his late 30s. 

That investigation determined that Hart broke church laws mandating that priests practice celibacy. But the probe stopped short of finding that Hart had sexually abused a minor.

That’s because church officials gave precedent to the canon law that was in place at the time of the alleged abuse, which considered 16 the age of majority, even though the U.S. Catholic Church had adopted policies in 2002 that instructed church leaders to consider anyone younger than 18 as underage, the sources said.

When asked Monday about the investigation, the archdiocese declined to comment other than to say Hart retired on Jan. 6. The statement added that the archdiocese was barred from speaking about the case because of a federal court order, an apparent reference to a mandate associated with the church’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing from May 2020, when it was faced with dozens of pending abuse-related lawsuits. 

Brother Martin officials also declined to return multiple messages seeking comment, simply confirming Hart had retired without saying when.

Hart was 37 years old when he was ordained in August 1989, having first pursued a career in banking before joining the priesthood. His first assignment was at St. Ann Church in Metairie, and as chaplain at the all-girls Archbishop Chapelle High School.

It was during his work at St. Ann that he took an interest in a Mount Carmel senior who participated in the Catholic Youth Organization chapter at the church, the sources said.

By 1990, he was allegedly spending his personal time with the student, and began kissing her, groping her chest, and at least once engaging in what church investigators described as “dry sex” — which involves people simulating intercourse with their clothes on — while in the rectory, the sources said.

Two of the teen’s friends told investigators that they recalled the student speaking about kissing Hart at the time, but they did not remember her talking about about the more intense sexual contact, the sources said.

The girl eventually stopped spending time with Hart. She didn’t immediately report the priest, who went on to assignments at St. Charles Borromeo, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Andrew the Apostle.

But in the spring of 2012, the woman learned Hart was returning to St. Ann, where she had children in school. That prompted her to contact the archdiocese and file a formal complaint.

Though 17 is the legal age of consent in Louisiana, the woman told the archdiocese she realized Hart’s contact with her was inappropriate, and she accused him of grooming her before pursuing sexual contact.

The complaint led to an internal investigation that lasted into 2013. Generally, Hart denied initiating contact but acknowledged there was some and that he may have even “released some semen,” multiple sources said.

Aymond’s internal clerical advisors determined, at a minimum, Hart had violated celibacy rules along with priest-parishioner boundaries, the sources said. A separate review board advising Aymond, which included lay members of the church, voted that Hart — by his own admission — had abused a minor. 

But the case turned on a technicality: the definition of an adult under church law at the time of the sexual misconduct. That section of canon law set 16 as the age of adulthood, so — at the behest of his clerical advisors — Aymond indicated to the Vatican office which oversees clerical abuse cases that Hart had not abused a minor in this case, the sources said.

Hart, therefore, is not on a list of more than 70 priests and deacons that the archdiocese considers to be credibly accused of molesting minors.

Hart had been active in celebrating virtual Masses for the Brother Martin community since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In confirming his retirement, the archdiocese said Hart’s record at the school was exemplary.

“Father Hart served the people of God … with faithfulness to his priestly promises,” the archdiocesan statement read. “We continue our prayers as Father Hart struggles with treatment for brain cancer.”

Hart, for his part, denied that anyone had ever accused him of misconduct with someone younger than 18.

“There’s never been anything like that,” he said. “I retired because I have cancer and am fighting right now.”