A New Orleans attorney who represents victims of clerical sex 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 teenage girl whom he had met in another religious institution.
The attorney, Richard Trahant, said he would appeal the heavy penalty he received on Tuesday, which stemmed from a federal judge’s ruling that his whistleblower violated confidentiality rules governing a bankruptcy filing. under Chapter 11 by the local archdiocese.
A spokesman for the archdiocese – the second oldest in the United States, serving about 400,000 parishioners – declined to comment other than to say, “The wisdom of the judge’s decision speaks for itself.”
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 sex while clothed – with a girl who was a senior in high school and participated in a youth group in a church where he was assigned in the early 1990s.
Hart was then in his late thirties. The girl was 17 years old. In 2012, she had learned that after other missions, 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 which she now realized was inappropriate. In a church inquest, Hart denied initiating what happened but admitted that the contact, which he could not tell, did not cause him to ejaculate.
Worldwide, the Catholic Church has since 2002 instructed leaders to consider anyone under the age of 18 a minor. However, although the investigation revealed that Hart had violated long-standing Church laws requiring priests to practice celibacy, it did not reveal that he had sexually abused a minor. According to the ecclesiastical law in force at the time, the age of majority was 16 years.
Church officials have never publicly discussed Hart’s case. In 2017, he became chaplain at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. Details of Hart’s investigation were in filings the archdiocese released after it filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, amid dozens of unresolved lawsuits related to the global clergy abuse crisis for decades. decades.
Trahant, the lawyer, represents plaintiffs in some of these trials. As the bankruptcy case positioned the local archdiocese to revamp its books, Trahant and some colleagues and clients were named to a committee representing the interests of clergy abuse plaintiffs. In this role, Trahant learned of the 2012 lawsuit against Hart.
Although Brother Martin only admits boys, the girls participate in activities such as cheerleading and competitive dancing. In January of this year, Trahant, a cousin of the principal, informed Brother Martin of the Hart investigation. Within days, Hart retired. He and the archdiocese – which has spent nearly $19 million 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 with 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 handling the archdiocese’s bankruptcy petition, Meredith Grabill, ordered an investigation into the leaks because Hart’s file was among the documents the church had classified as confidential.
In responding to questions during this investigation into the leaks, this reporter declined to discuss the sources cited in the Times-Picayune article, but said Trahant provided no information in the article. There is no indication that investigators have concluded that Trahant 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 that 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 deleted of the Trahant Clergy Abuse Plaintiffs Committee, two attorneys with whom he frequently works, and a number of clients. On Tuesday, she added the $400,000 fine against Trahant, saying the amount came from the cost of investigating the leaks.
The judge also wrote that the leak investigation was only necessary because Trahant was not immediately clear. But at one point Trahant told the court he had written to the judge asking to meet with her in February and hoped to discuss the chain of events involving Hart; yet he was unsuccessful, according to a publicly available transcript.
Grabill wrote on Tuesday 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 well in excess of any penalty usually given to lawyers.
Trahant would not comment on Grabill’s reasoning. But in a deposition during the investigation into the leak, a transcript of which is on the public record, Trahant said he believed he acted as any judicial officer should.
“I don’t believe I violated the [confidentiality] order” by alerting a school to a clergyman who had previously engaged in misconduct with a teenager, the attorney said.
“I’m going to do something about it 10 times out of 10.”