Earlier this year, attorney Richard Trahant discovered that a chaplain at (private Catholic) Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, Louisiana had previously been accused of sexual misconduct. Trahant contacted the school and informed them of what he had just learned. Within days, that chaplain, Paul Hart, announced his “retirement.” That lawyer has now been fined $400,000 for warning people about the predator priest.
I repeat: The attorney—not the priest and not the school and not the Catholic Church—was fined $400,000 for alerting people about Hart’s past actions.
It’s hard to make sense of it because it seems so backwards and so egregiously, obviously wrong. (Spoiler: It is.) But the details are worth understanding.
The allegations against Rev. Paul Hart
Paul Hart began working for the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1989. At some point during his tenure there, when he was in his late 30s, he met a 17-year-old girl who attended Mount Carmel Academy and was a member of a youth group at his church. Things took a disturbing turn after that:
By 1990, he was allegedly spending his personal time with the student, and began kissing her, groping her chest, and at least once engaging in what church investigators described as “dry sex” — which involves people simulating intercourse with their clothes on — while in the rectory, the sources said.
As criminal as that was, the girl didn’t tell anyone what happened at that time. She later said she didn’t understand just how inappropriate his actions were.
By 2012, however, that same girl had grown up and had children of her own. She even sent them to a Catholic school in the same archdiocese. But she soon found out that Paul Hart, who had moved around quite a bit during his career, was now back at their church and in close proximity to her kids. Knowing now how egregious Hart’s behavior had been, she told the archdiocese what happened to her years earlier.
The woman filed a complaint with the archdiocese, accusing Hart of grooming her before pursuing sexual contact she now realized was inappropriate. In a church investigation, Hart denied initiating what happened but admitted contact, which he could not say did not cause him to ejaculate.
The Church’s investigation didn’t go anywhere. They said Hart broke the Catholic Church’s rules about celibacy, as if that was the real issue, but didn’t commit child sexual abuse because canon law at the time said the age of adulthood was 16. (That was raised to 18 in 2002, but investigators were going by Church rules that were in place in the 1990s.)
The end result was that Hart remained a priest within the diocese. He wasn’t fired. He wasn’t even seriously in trouble. Because he had not abused a “minor,” his name never appeared on any list of priests accused of such behavior.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans files for bankruptcy
In May of 2020, the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Faced with the high costs of child sex abuse lawsuits and the huge financial hit from the pandemic, there was no other choice. The filing put a temporary stop to the lawsuits and began a process to figure out the archdiocese’s assets and liabilities. That process, however, involved sharing details about internal investigations.
That’s when attorney Richard Trahant entered the story.
He represented some of the victims of sexual abuse and was part of a committee investigating the archdiocese. In that position, he saw the paperwork documenting the allegations against Hart. He also knew that Hart was currently working at Brother Martin High School. While that’s an all-boys school, girls are in the building for some extracurricular activities, so Trahant felt obligated to let the school know they had an alleged predator in their midst. (Trahant’s cousin also happened to be the principal of that school.)
Within days after the school learned about Hart, they released a statement announcing his sudden retirement. Both sides claimed Hart was stepping down “due to his ongoing battle with brain cancer.” Obviously the goal was to keep the allegations quiet.
But when the Times-Picayune wrote about Hart’s departure, reporter Ramon Antonio Vargas had the real scoop: Hart’s retirement was announced right after the school discovered the allegations of abuse against him.
The chaplain at Brother Martin High School abruptly left his post earlier this month, just days after the school was notified of allegations that he kissed and fondled a Mount Carmel Academy senior in 1990 while serving at another local Catholic institution, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation.
How was Vargas able to connect those dots?! The archdiocese clearly didn’t want anyone to know the real reason Hart was being let go, but Vargas seemed to have inside information.
Why the lawyer was fined for reporting the priest
On Tuesday, we finally learned the backstory. In a piece for the Guardian, written by none other than Ramon Antonio Vargas, he explained how he got a major tip from… attorney Richard Trahant.
It turned out that when Trahant alerted Brother Martin High School about Hart, he also emailed Vargas “advising him to ‘keep’ Hart on his ‘radar’, without saying why.”
Vargas began digging and it soon led to the scoop mentioned earlier, connecting Hart’s retirement with what seemed to be the actual reason for his departure.
When that story came out earlier this year, the judge in charge of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings, Meredith Grabill, realized that the only way a reporter could have learned any of those details was if someone working on the case leaked the information. That would have been a problem since all the documents were classified.
Grabill called for an investigation. While Vargas says he didn’t rat out his source(s), and openly told the investigators “Trahant did not provide any information in the piece,” Grabill said Trahant’s warning to the high school and his email telling Vargas to keep tabs on Hart violated the confidentiality agreement. So she punished him:
Grabill immediately removed from the clergy abuse claimants committee Trahant, two attorneys with whom he frequently collaborates and a number of clients. On Tuesday, she added the $400,000 fine against Trahant, saying the amount was derived from the cost of the leak investigation.
A $400,000 fine for warning a school about an alleged sex predator on their payroll.
Trahant says he’s appealing the decision. He also said in a publicly available deposition during the leak investigation that he acted like any mandated reporter: When he learned about wrongdoing, he reported it to relevant parties in order to protect potential victims.
“I don’t believe I violated the [confidentiality] order” by alerting a school about a cleric who had previously engaged in misconduct with a teen, the attorney said.
“I’m going to do something about it 10 out of 10 times.”
The bottom line is that Trahant did exactly what the Church should’ve done a long time ago. He took action when he realized there was a problem. But because his actions violate the letter of the law when it comes to these bankruptcy hearings, he now faces this staggering fine.
The archdiocese is practically gloating about all this:
“The wisdom of the judge’s ruling speaks for itself.”
The wisdom! You can practically feel the condescension in that statement.
Whatever the legal situation here, Trahant deserves a medal for what he did, not a fine. When the morally correct option stands in direct opposition to the law, you have to respect those who choose the former path. It may be a messed up situation, but everyone is better off because Trahant spoke up.
If the Catholic Church actually gave a damn about any of these victims, it would be first in line offering to pay Trahant’s fine on his behalf. He did them a favor by giving them information that led to the dismissal of a child sex predator.
Just because the law may on the Church’s side here doesn’t mean the Church should bask in victory. Their current response show you how little the care about the people they hurt.