New Orleans lawyer fined for alerting school to priest’s past sexual misconduct

The Guardian [London, England]

October 12, 2022

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Richard Trahant was fined $400,000 for violating confidentiality rules around a bankruptcy filing by the local archdiocese

New Orleans attorney who represents victims of clerical sexual abuse faces a $400,000 fine after alerting a local Catholic high school that a priest who worked there once admitted to fondling and kissing a teen girl he met at another church institution.

The lawyer, Richard Trahant, said he would appeal against the hefty sanction handed to him on Tuesday, which stemmed from a federal judge’s ruling that his alert violated confidentiality rules governing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by the local archdiocese.

A spokesman for the archdiocese – the second-oldest in the US, serving about 400,000 parishioners – declined comment other than to say: “The wisdom of the judge’s ruling speaks for itself.”Advertisement

At the center of the dispute is a priest named Paul Hart, who officials found kissed, groped and at least once engaged in what the church described as “dry sex” – simulated intercourse while clothed – with a girl who was a senior in high school and participated in a youth group at a church where he was assigned in the early 1990s.

Hart was then in his late 30s. The girl was 17. By 2012, she had learned that after other assignments, Hart was returning to the church where they met and which ran a school her children then attended.

The woman filed a complaint with the archdiocese, accusing Hart of grooming her before pursuing sexual contact she now realized was inappropriate. In a church investigation, Hart denied initiating what happened but admitted contact, which he could not say did not cause him to ejaculate.

Worldwide, the Catholic church has since 2002 instructed leaders to consider anyone younger than 18 underage. However, though the investigation found Hart broke longstanding church laws mandating that priests practice celibacy, it did not find he sexually abused a minor. Under church law in effect at the time, the age of majority was 16.

Church officials have never publicly discussed Hart’s case. In 2017, he became chaplain of Brother Martin high school, in New Orleans. Details of the investigation into Hart were contained in files the archdiocese turned over after it filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, faced with dozens of unresolved lawsuits related to the worldwide church’s decades-old clerical abuse crisis.Advertisement

Trahant, the lawyer, represents plaintiffs in some such lawsuits. As the bankruptcy case positioned the local archdiocese to reorganize its books, Trahant and some colleagues and clients were put on a committee representing the interests of clergy abuse claimants. In that role, Trahant learned about the 2012 complaint against Hart.

Though Brother Martin only admits boys, girls participate in activities including cheerleading and competitive dancing. In January this year, Trahant, a cousin of the principal, notified Brother Martin about the Hart investigation. Within days, Hart retired. He and the archdiocese – which has spent nearly $19m in legal and professional fees since filing for bankruptcy – said it was because of a battle with brain cancer.

Trahant also sent an email to this reporter, then working for the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, advising him to “keep” Hart on his “radar”, without saying why.

The Times-Picayune reported that Hart’s departure came as the misconduct investigation resurfaced. The judge overseeing the archdiocese’s bankruptcy petition, Meredith Grabill, ordered a leak investigation because Hart’s file was among documents the church had classified as confidential.

When answering questions during that leak investigation, this reporter declined to discuss any sources cited in the Times-Picayune article but did say Trahant did not provide any information in the piece. Nothing indicates that investigators concluded Trahant had provided any of the information in the Times-Picayune report or was one of the unnamed sources cited.

Judge Grabill nonetheless ruled in June that Trahant’s alert to Brother Martin and his email telling this reporter to keep the priest on his radar – which the judge said “planted the seed” leading to the article – violated the confidentiality rules of the bankruptcy case.

Grabill immediately removed from the clergy abuse claimants committee Trahant, two attorneys with whom he frequently collaborates and a number of clients. On Tuesday, she added the $400,000 fine against Trahant, saying the amount was derived from the cost of the leak investigation.

The judge also wrote that the leak investigation was only necessary because Trahant didn’t immediately come clean. But at one point Trahant said in court that he had written to the judge asking to meet with her in February, and he hoped to discuss the chain of events involving Hart; yet he had no success, according to a publicly available transcript.

Grabill on Tuesday wrote that the fine would “serve the desired purpose of deterring Trahant and others from engaging in similar misconduct”. Trahant was given 30 days to pay an amount that is far higher than any sanction typically given to lawyers.

Trahant would not comment on Grabill’s reasoning. But in a deposition during the leak investigation, a transcript of which is in the public record, Trahant said he believed he acted as any officer of a court of law should.

“I don’t believe I violated the [confidentiality] order” by alerting a school about a cleric who had previously engaged in misconduct with a teen, the attorney said.

“I’m going to do something about it 10 out of 10 times.”