Lawyer appeals $400,000 fine for exposing identity of chaplain with history of sexual abuse

The Guardian [London, England]

April 3, 2024

By David Hammer

Richard Trahant is appealing court judgment after he contacted high school’s principal and journalist about priest Paul Hart

A lawyer representing dozens of child molestation victims against the bankrupt Roman Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans contends he was in an “untenable” situation when he learned in late 2021 that the chaplain at a local Catholic high school had admitted years earlier to groping and simulating sex with a high school student.

That legal argument came on Tuesday as the lawyer appeared before judges with the US fifth circuit court of appeal and asked it to overturn a $400,000 judgment he was handed for taking steps that resulted in the removal of the chaplain from the school’s campus.

The attorney, Richard Trahant, was punished after deciding to warn the principal at Brother Martin high school, who happened to be his cousin, about how the school’s chaplain, priest Paul Hart, had a problematic episode in his past. Trahant, who didn’t elaborate about the chaplain with his cousin, also told a local journalist to put Hart “on his radar”.

On 18 January 2022, the journalist reported in the Times-Picayune that Hart had been named chaplain at Brother Martin in 2017, five years after he had admitted to a sexual act with a 17-year-old girl. That same day, Brother Martin sent a letter to parents explaining that the school had asked New Orleans archbishop Gregory Aymond to remove Hart as chaplain after learning about allegations from Hart’s “distant past”.

A leak investigation by the US bankruptcy trustee found that someone else, not Trahant, had provided the reporter – now at the Guardian – with the information about what Hart had done in the 1990s. In 2023, the Guardian uncovered more secret records that showed it had been the archdiocese itself that informed Brother Martin about what Hart had done – and that Aymond had apologized for appointing him.

The records also show a church review board in 2012 found that Hart committed child sexual abuse in 1990. But on the advice of a canon lawyer and a priest later faced with substantial allegations of abusing a teenager, Aymond later cleared Hart of that charge because, prior to 2002, the church considered 17-year-olds adults.

Hart was then named chaplain at Brother Martin in 2017. He died in October 2022, months after his removal from the school.

US bankruptcy judge Meredith Grabill ultimately found Trahant in contempt of court for his actions. She removed his clients from a committee of abuse victims negotiating a settlement with the church and ordered Trahant to pay $400,000 in sanctions for violating her order protecting the secrecy of records produced by the archdiocese of New Orleans in its bankruptcy case.

Trahant’s clients are separately appealing to the fifth circuit to try to reverse Grabill’s decision to remove them from the abuse victims’ committee.

Trahant’s attorney, Paul Sterbcow, argued on Wednesday before a three-judge panel of the fifth circuit that Trahant had been careful not to violate the protective order and that Grabill had ruled against him without affording him proper due process.

“It’s a moral choice and a legal choice,” Sterbcow said in an interview on the steps of the courthouse in downtown New Orleans. “And the two choices are mutually inconsistent. You have to go one way or the other. And he took the moral road, and the priest was ultimately, quickly, removed from campus. So, from that standpoint, mission accomplished.”

Chief circuit judge Priscilla Richman said from the bench that sometimes the right thing to do morally conflicts with someone’s legal obligations.

Arguing for the archdiocese, Mark Mintz told Richman as well as judges Andrew Oldham and Irma Carrillo Ramirez that the church had removed Hart as soon as it was alerted to Brother Martin’s concerns, even though the information about what Hart did came from the church’s files.

Mintz argued that Trahant should have come to the archdiocese or Grabill with his concerns and not to Brother Martin or the journalist, which he maintained violated the secrecy rules in the bankruptcy.

Sterbcow called that “Monday morning quarterbacking”.

“Going to court is fine, except going to court takes time,” he said. “And there was no time here. This had to be done immediately.”

The church has been in bankruptcy for nearly four years to address about 500 claims that more than 300 of its priests and employees molested children or vulnerable adults – and Trahant remains the only person ordered to pay any penalties.