US lawyer who alerted school to priest’s sexual misconduct seeks damages

The Guardian [London, England]

June 8, 2023

By Ramon Antonio Vargas in New Orleans

Richard Trahant, fined $400,000 for alerting high school about priest, accuses law firm of trying to harm his reputation

An American attorney fined $400,000 for alerting a Roman Catholic high school that a priest stationed there admitted fondling and kissing a teenage girl during a previous assignment is seeking damages from church lawyers as he fights the penalty.

The lawsuit filed last week by the Louisiana-based attorney Richard Trahant accuses a law firm representing New Orleans’s archdiocese in a bankruptcy protection case – and administrators of the proceeding – of trying to harm his reputation by widely but improperly publicizing the judicial order behind the fine.

In a statement on Wednesday responding to the suit Trahant and his wife, Amy, filed five days earlier, the Jones Walker law firm said it followed the instructions of the judge who levied the fine. “Mr Trahant and his wife claim that they were injured by Jones Walker … following the court’s instructions,” the firm’s statement said.

Donlin Recano, which handles administrative duties related to the bankruptcy case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trahants argue they were unduly inflicted mental anguish by Jones Walker, firm partner Mark Mintz and Donlin Recano amid a dispute dating back to early 2022.

At the center of the dispute is a priest, Paul Hart, who died last October after retiring as chaplain of a school whose principal was Richard Trahant’s cousin.

Through his work representing plaintiffs whose suits alleging abuse by priests and deacons helped drive the New Orleans archdiocese to file for bankruptcy protection, Trahant learned that Hart inappropriately touched, kissed and at least once engaged in “dry sex” – simulated intercourse while clothed – with a girl who was 17 and participating in a youth group at a church in the early 1990s.

She filed a misconduct complaint with the archdiocese in 2012, when she was an adult. Hart had been assigned to work at a church which ran a school her children attended.

New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, concluded that Hart behaved immorally but did not abuse a child because church law in effect at the time of the misconduct set the age of majority at 16. Aymond then assigned Hart to Brother Martin high school in 2017.

After Trahant alerted his cousin about the allegations, Hart retired and left Brother Martin, which exclusively admits boys but allows girls to participate in activities including cheerleading and competitive dancing.

Trahant also sent an email to a local reporter, advising him to “keep” Hart on his “radar”. Through sources that did not include Trahant, the newspaper documented how the abrupt retirement came as details of his misconduct resurfaced. That prompted the judge overseeing the church bankruptcy case – Meredith Grabill – to order a leak investigation because Hart’s personnel file was labeled confidential.

In time, it was Trahant who faced the most substantial consequences from Hart’s exposure. Grabill ruled that Trahant’s alert to his cousin and email to the reporter violated confidentiality rules in the church bankruptcy case.

The judge removed Trahant, two attorneys with whom he often collaborates and a number of their clients from a bankruptcy case committee representing clergy abuse claimants.

Grabill also issued an order containing “Yes!” at the beginning of the title caption, which told Trahant to appear before her and face additional sanctions. That version of the order caused comment in the New Orleans legal community, and another omitting “Yes!” from the title caption was later published.

The judge ultimately added the $400,000 fine against Trahant, saying that was a little more than half of what the leak investigation cost. Trahant has asked a federal appeals court to overturn the fine, contending that materials on Hart should not be subject to the overly broad rules in the bankruptcy case, among other arguments.

His recent lawsuit maintains that it was Mintz of Jones Walker who suggested ordering the leak investigation to Grabill, with whom he once taught a class at New Orleans’s Tulane law school, according to information online.

Once Grabill concluded Trahant violated confidentiality rules, she held a hearing in which it was decided abuse survivors’ lawyers would serve them copies of her findings. Grabill also issued an order in which she said the archdiocese’s counsel should send her findings through first-class mail only to parties involved in the bankruptcy.

“There can be no doubt that the service … was sensitive and was supposed to be limited,” Trahant’s suit asserts.

The suit says Trahant later determined that Mintz and Donlin Recano sent Grabill’s findings to more than 16,000 people internationally, “most of whom have nothing to do with the archdiocese bankruptcy”. Among them was the 18-year-old daughter of a friend of Amy Trahant, who was the first to give the Trahants an idea of how widely the order had been disseminated.

While Grabill’s punishment of Trahant made news headlines, his lawsuit argues that many people on the distribution list would not have readily found coverage of the case.

The lawsuit also notes how Mintz – whose firm has earned more than $10m dollars from representing the archdiocese in the bankruptcy case, according to public filings – has called Trahant “a bad actor” engaged in “scorched earth litigation”. The Trahants say Mintz abused the legal process by having Grabill’s findings sent so widely as part of an attempt to humiliate Richard Trahant and harm his potential future earnings.

The Trahants additionally claim Donlin Recano should be held liable for failing to properly train or supervise employees involved in distributing Grabill’s findings.

The couple’s lawsuit remained pending on Thursday, at a state courthouse in Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans.