NEW ORLEANS — Two hours before Church sex abuse victims on a court-appointed committee were scheduled to address Archbishop Gregory Aymond in bankruptcy court, a federal judge put a stop to it and removed four of the six victims from the panel.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill said in her order that she was forced to remove them because one of their attorneys, Richard Trahant, had allegedly disclosed “highly confidential information” in violation of her previous orders.
That leaves only two members remaining on a committee representing about 450 alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ two-year-old bankruptcy case.
The committee was going to court Tuesday to begin mediation, a process to decide how much money the Archdiocese owes its creditors. Victims of sexual abuse by clergy were prepared to argue the church owes them damages for allegedly allowing abuse to happen and covering it up.
“This really changes the momentum of the bankruptcy,” said James Adams, the chairman of the committee and one of the four who were removed because they are represented by Trahant. “This could add tremendous delays to the process on the very day when mediation was scheduled to begin.”
Grabill’s order says an investigation by the U.S. Trustee, an officer of the court who acts as a neutral representative of the Justice Department in bankruptcy cases, found that Trahant disclosed protected information to an unnamed “third party” and “the media,” but the report was filed under seal and remained secret.
Grabill’s order says because of Trahant’s alleged actions, she was forced to remove his clients from the committee and would hold a hearing to consider sanctions against Trahant. But Adams said he and Trahant’s other clients were never given a chance to choose a different lawyer.
“I’m not a lawyer, but it’s very strange to me that the perceived actions of someone else would lead the judge to sanction the members of the committee,” Adams said. “It’s shocking. It really is.”
Trahant said punishing his clients for his actions is unfair to them and all the sexual abuse victims they represent.
“Our four clients who were removed from the Unsecured Creditors Committee did nothing wrong,” he said. “These child sexual abuse survivors have volunteered their time selflessly and have given incredible effort for the past two years to hold the Archdiocese of New Orleans accountable while representing the interests of approximately 450 sexual abuse survivors in this bankruptcy. This is a sad day for childhood sexual abuse survivors and for those who advocate for them, but we will continue to represent our clients zealously.”
As a member of the committee, Adams had access to sealed court records, and he said the judge’s allegation that Trahant disclosed confidential information “is not consistent with what I know to be the actions of Richard Trahant.”
Richard Windmann, head of the advocacy group Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse, also blasted Grabill’s order, saying it “robbed (victims) of their voices in the midst of their abusers.”
The Archdiocese declined to comment on Grabill’s order.
In addition to ousting the four committee members, Grabill’s order prevents Trahant and two attorneys he works with, Soren Gisleson and John Denenea, from participating in settlement negotiations from now on.
Trahant, Gisleson and Denenea represent almost one-in-every-five claimants alleging child sexual abuse in the bankruptcy case. They also handled nearly all of three dozen sexual abuse lawsuits that were pending against the Archdiocese in state court seeking millions of dollars in damages when the local church filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020.
By filing for bankruptcy, the Archdiocese was able to stop those civil court cases in their tracks, including preventing Aymond and other top church officials from having to testify under oath in depositions.
And since then, according to court records, Grabill has kept secret hundreds of documents related to the child sexual abuse claims. According to a court transcript from July 2020, Grabill refused to accept into the record documents related to sexual abuse claims against a living former priest, Lawrence Hecker.
The Archdiocese acknowledged Hecker was credibly accused of sexually abusing minors in 2018, but Trahant and Gisleson argued in 2020 that records of the allegations against him, disclosed in a state court lawsuit, were not fully reported to law enforcement. Instead of letting those documents into the bankruptcy case, Grabill said she would destroy them because they had been sealed previously by a state court.
Trahant and Gisleson said they have not been allowed to see the U.S. Trustee’s report and were not given a chance to rebut the claim that Trahant disclosed confidential information. Gisleson said they will challenge the court’s ruling.
In a statement to WWL-TV Trahant suggested the information he divulged was to protect children from a current threat.
“While I am not at liberty to discuss the circumstances surrounding the court’s order, we will always do what we have to do to protect children from sexual predators,” Trahant said.
Grabill’s order does not say what information Trahant revealed or exactly who received it, but it does say it was disclosed to a third party and the media beginning on Dec. 31, 2021.
Less than three weeks later, on Jan. 18, 2022, The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate reported that the Rev. Paul Hart had suddenly left his post as chaplain at Brother Martin High School on Jan. 6. The newspaper, citing multiple unnamed sources, reported that days earlier school officials had been “tipped off” that a church investigation had determined Hart violated his celibacy vows with a 17-year-old girl but the Archdiocese did not formally notify the school until requested to do so on Jan. 13.