NEW ORLEANS — A federal bankruptcy judge ordered an attorney representing dozens of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests to pay a massive $400,000 fine on Tuesday, because he disclosed the name of an active priest accused of sexual abuse in confidential church records.
The judge, Meredith Grabill, ruled the attorney, Richard Trahant, violated a protective order by notifying a local high school and a news reporter in early January about a priest who was still working at the school, after Trahant had seen church records marked “confidential” that implicated that priest in sexual misconduct.
According to an investigation by The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, those Archdiocese records showed an internal church investigation had concluded that Father Paul Hart had “dry sex” while fully clothed with a 17-year-old girl, but it didn’t violate the church law in place at the time that set 16 as the age of majority.
In 2002, the Vatican changed its policy to consider anyone under 18 to be a child.
The allegations against Hart had never been disclosed until the church investigation was given to a small group of attorneys in the bankruptcy case in December 2021. After seeing those documents, Trahant sent a text to his cousin, Ryan Gallagher, the principal at Brother Martin High School, asking if Hart was still the chaplain at the school. He also sent an email to Ramon Vargas, then a reporter at The Times-Picayune, telling him to keep Hart on his “radar” but not explaining why.
Days later, Hart retired, citing health issues. Two weeks later, the newspaper published a story by Vargas detailing the church investigation of Hart based on information from anonymous sources.
The Archdiocese asked Grabill to sanction Trahant for violating her orders, and she directed the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee to investigate. In a story in The Guardian this week, Vargas reported he was questioned as part of that investigation, declined to disclose his anonymous sources and told the investigators that Trahant did not provide any of the information reported in the newspaper story.
But Grabill said Trahant, “planted a seed,” with his cousin and Vargas to ask about allegations against Hart. In a hearing in August, Trahant agreed he planted a seed, but defended why he did it and argued he did it in a way that didn’t violate the court’s protective order.
“Your Honor is a hundred percent right,” Trahant testified. “Yeah, I planted that seed. … I communicate with (my cousin) fairly frequently, and I didn’t want that guy back on campus. … The seed I planted with (Vargas) … (was) because I think this … stuff needs to be exposed.”
The $400,000 fine is far beyond any typical punishment for attorneys. But Trahant’s clients and others associated with victims of abuse by priests rushed to his defense Wednesday.
“He, without a doubt, cares more about the victims and the damage done to them than the Archdiocese and the Vatican,” said Michael Brandner Sr., whose brother, Scot, committed suicide after receiving love letters in the 1980s from Father Brian Highfill. Brandner had to gather years of complaints against Highfill already filed with the church by multiple victims to get the Archdiocese to add Highfill to its list of credibly accused clergy in 2020.
“Here is a guy (Trahant) trying to protect children from these monsters and he gets punished for it,” Brandner said. “It’s disgusting.”
But an Archdiocese spokesman said the court's findings are clear that Trahant's actions hurt everyone involved.
"It is difficult to imagine applauding the actions of an attorney sanctioned for intentional violation of an order of a federal judge, which has caused an expensive and unnecessary investigation by the United States Trustee," spokesman Bill Kearney said.
"Trahant’s actions and defense of his actions continue to deplete the financial resources of the archdiocese, to the detriment of his clients and those he does not represent. The Court recognized and Trahant finally admitted he did not follow the court-ordered process."
Grabill has already removed Trahant and his group’s clients from a committee of abuse survivors that was supposed to negotiate a settlement with the Archdiocese. She removed them hours before Archbishop Gregory Aymond was supposed to meet with the survivors committee for initial settlement negotiations.
Grabill wrote in her sanctions order that Trahant had wasted the church and court’s time and money. She quoted an argument by the Archdiocese that Trahant’s disclosure had also caused “hurt and trauma (to be) revisited upon the alleged victim,” although there was no evidence of that presented in the record.
“His actions created waste, disrupted the progress in this case, and delayed resolution of this particular matter for months,” she wrote. She said Trahant never took action in court to challenge the confidentiality of the records. She also noted that the investigation of the matter would cost the church $760,000 in legal and professional fees and ordered Trahant to pay $400,000 of it.
Trahant said he would appeal Grabill’s ruling.
“I don’t regret doing it,” he said. “I might do it in a different manner, but I knew something had to be done, and it had to be done fast. I feel like I did the right thing, morally, ethically and legally.”
Both sides accuse the other of causing legal fees to mount while hundreds of claimants alleging abuse by priests and other archdiocesan officials continue to wait years for compensation.
The Archdiocese has already racked up $18.8 million in professional and legal fees since filing for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, according to public records filed in the case. That’s about three times more than the church had set aside in a fund to pay victims of sexual abuse before declaring bankruptcy.
"Over two years ago, the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in good faith with the intention of preserving its assets in order to justly pay any commercial debts as well as abuse claims arising through the bankruptcy court," Kearney said, adding that the church's costs have spiraled far beyond its expectations.
"In addition to our costs, the archdiocese is required by law to pay the fees and costs of lawyers with multiple firms to represent the (abuse victims) as well as a firm representing the Committee of Commercial Creditors, and all experts hired by both committees," he said. "Since filing the bankruptcy, we have been met with multiple costly objections and actions by attorneys working in opposition to us, which have prevented the case from moving forward and driven up the cost, while delaying resolution of the bankruptcy case. This is regrettable for us and damaging to those creditors, including abuse victims, seeking compensation. We remain committed to our reorganization goals of a more efficient operation and pray that all involved focus efforts to finding reasonable solutions and finalizing fair compensation for all."