‘You’re only as sick as your secrets’: New Orleans clergy abuse bankruptcy is uniquely acrimonious

The church is using legal tactics to prevent testimony from survivors and spur expensive inquiries into its critics

Jason Berry and Ramon Antonio Vargas in New Orleans
Wed 29 Nov 2023 07.00 EST

This is the first installment of a three-part series exploring how the archdiocese of New Orleans’s bankruptcy stands apart from other cases of its kind.

As his practice grew, plaintiff attorney Richard C Trahant, 56, sent money to the Jesuit high school of New Orleans. Lots of money.

Trahant graduated from the storied all-boys college preparatory school in 1985, following in the footsteps of his father and great-uncle, a path his two sons would also follow. Jesuit alumni include former mayors Mitch Landrieu – today the Joe Biden White House’s top infrastructure adviser – and Marc Morial, now president of the Urban League. Others are jazz singer Harry Connick Jr and award-winning novelist John Gregory Brown, among numerous other lawyers, public officials, physicians, scholars, CEOs and priests.

Trahant found a mentor in his principal, the Rev Anthony McGinn (class of ’66). When McGinn became school president, Trahant’s mom worked 15 years as his secretary. The Jesuit priest presided over Trahant’s wedding with Amy Olavarrieta, baptized their four children and officiated at his mother’s funeral in 2013.

In 2015, Trahant wrote a $20,000 check to endow a scholarship in McGinn’s name. He embraced the Jesuits’ motto: “Men for others.” Yet in 2021, Trahant recalls, priests and staffers shunned Amy and him at the graduation mass at which their younger son, Garrison, spoke as valedictorian. McGinn had broken off contact since Trahant agreed to represent a 1983 Jesuit graduate who alleged being raped as a student by a custodian.

Many secondary schools, notably eastern college preps like Exeter Academy and Horace Mann in Manhattan, have weathered long-ago abuse cases. As Trahant’s school ties eroded, he took on a steadily increasing number of Catholic clergy abuse clients. He also lost his faith.

Yet he never imagined the blowback that would come after the New Orleans archdiocese, facing many abuse lawsuits, sought federal bankruptcy protection in 2020.

Today, Trahant has spent nearly $100,000 on his own legal fees, appealing Judge Meredith Grabill’s $400,000 fine on him for allegedly violating her order barring disclosure of church files. A federal bankruptcy halts the discovery process by which lawyers secure internal documents through subpoenas, subjecting defendants to sworn testimony in depositions.

Trahant in late 2021 advised his cousin, the principal of Jesuit rival Brother Martin high school, that the chaplain – Paul Hart – had a substantial stain in his past. As would later be revealed – yet not by Trahant because of the secrecy order – Hart had admitted molesting a teenage girl in the 1990s. He nonetheless had been stationed at Brother Martin by New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond.

Hart quickly resigned.

Trahant claims that as an officer of the court he was legally bound to alert school officials to a known predator. He also insists he did not reveal any protected information, and school officials ultimately backed his version of events.

Nonetheless, a local newspaper article on Hart’s abrupt resignation stirred concern by Grabill and other attorneys in the bankruptcy case for a breach of secrecy blanketing church files.

Grabill ordered sworn testimony from Trahant and an investigation into his actions from the US bankruptcy court trustee. The trustee’s report remains secret.

But an accessible transcript shows Trahant at one point testified that the report failed to find that he knowingly or willfully violated the protective order. The transcript does not show contrary evidence.

Nonetheless, Grabill fined Trahant.

A spokesperson for Judge Grabill denied a Guardian interview request, saying: “No comment.”

Yet the $400,000 fine against Trahant – who is arguably one of the archdiocese’s most outspoken opponents – is regarded as highly unusual by many legal commentators, including several who won’t speak publicly for fear of drawing a case in front of Grabill.

One of those attorneys, who is involved in the New Orleans bankruptcy, marveled at how Donald Trump had been fined only $15,000 when the judge overseeing the former president’s civil fraud trial found the he violated an order barring disparaging comments about judicial staff. An appeals court has since temporarily stayed the sanction pending an appeal.

A hostile judge has bought into the church’s position to attack a state court lawyer. The judge sees the lawyer as a villain

Attorney Jeff Anderson

Vermont-based attorney Stephen C Rubino, who has spent three decades representing clergy abuse victims, said: “I have never heard of a sanction like that in a bankruptcy case – never.”

St Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a pioneer in clergy malpractice who has several clients in the New Orleans archdiocese’s bankruptcy, said that a fine like Trahant’s “has never happened in any of the Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] cases that I know of”.

“My firm has been involved in 25 church bankruptcies,” Anderson said. “New Orleans is unique. A hostile judge has bought into the church’s position to attack a state court lawyer. The judge sees the lawyer as a villain.”

But, Anderson argues, in this case, “The villain is the archbishop.”

The archdiocese of New Orleans declined to make Archbishop Aymond available for an interview or comment on a broad description of what the Guardian intended to report on for this piece.

A worst-case scenario

Remarks like Anderson’s hint at how New Orleans has become the worst-case scenario of about 35 dioceses or religious orders that have sought bankruptcy protection to resolve clergy abuse cases since 2004. Two narratives are unfolding.

One, unearthed by media reports, is the surfacing of a criminal sexual underground in clerical culture stretching back decades, under four archbishops. Yet only a handful of New Orleans-area clergy predators have been prosecuted.

The bankruptcy is its own baroque story of bruising legal tactics that have hindered proceedings as hundreds of traumatized abuse survivors wait without an end seeming to be in sight.

With more than $25m paid in professional fees alone, roughly half to its attorneys at corporate law firm Jones Walker, the archdiocese has relied on lead bankruptcy attorney Mark Mintz’s strategy to track the litigation-by-ordeal approach in certain other dioceses, giving the church leeway to whittle down what rape victims and others will receive in compensation.

Well before the grinding three-year bankruptcy, Archbishop Aymond had begun to disgorge, in fits and starts, the names – but not the related internal files – of New Orleans clergymen accused of preying on children.

He lists fewer than 80 of those on a roster that his administration curates of clergymen whom the archdiocese considers to be “credibly accused”. But the bankruptcy proceedings have produced a much larger overall total. Claims fully name at least 310 priests, deacons and nonclerical personnel such as nuns who are accused of abuse.

That is a disproportionately huge number for the 41st-largest US diocese in terms of size, serving roughly 480,000 Catholics. A searing 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on church abuse cover-up schemes found 300 predators in six separate dioceses spread across a much more populous state than Louisiana.

The unending clergy abuse scandals have driven some state legislatures and prosecutors to take a deeper look at a church successfully protecting pedophiles. Louisiana’s ultra-conservative legislature passed a 2021 law extending the time for victims to file claims. Governor John Bel Edwards, a devout anti-abortion Catholic, signed it despite opposition from the Louisiana conference of Catholic bishops.

The aching decades-long crisis has cost the global church $10bn in legal fees, treatment for predators, survivor settlements and jury verdicts, according to Jack Ruhl, professor emeritus of accountancy at Western Michigan University, who spent years analyzing church financial reports.

However, few if any bankruptcies have been as acrimonious as the one that saddled Trahant with a harsher consequence than many unpunished clergy abusers – or those who were supposed to supervise them – have ever faced.

A best-case scenario

In diocesan bankruptcies, the first step is establishing a creditors’ committee including survivors and their attorneys, independent bankruptcy lawyers, counsel for insurance companies holding church liability policies, and lawyers for the church-as-debtor in ongoing mediation.

The archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, stands as a best-case scenario in resolving the labyrinthine process. Ranked 69th in terms of Catholic population, the Santa Fe church last year settled nearly 400 claims for $128m after three years of hard bargaining.

Uniquely, Archbishop John Wester agreed to deposit files outlining the careers and handling of 150 clergy predators in a public archive at the University of New Mexico.

“Wester pledged to do that in the committee’s first meeting, for which I give him great credit,” said Lisa Ford, an Albuquerque attorney for many survivors.

“We’ve always wanted to do more for those who were abused,” Wester said.

Wester – who had been a bishop in San Francisco – arrived in Santa Fe in 2015, after his predecessors’ decisions caused years of litigation and pounding media coverage.

The old saying ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets’ made me want to be transparent and help the healing process

John Wester, the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico

“The victims wanted a public record,” Wester said. “The old saying ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets’ made me want to be transparent and help the healing process.”

Asked if he had felt pushback from other bishops on releasing files, Wester said: “I got a trickling of letters saying it was a good move. I haven’t heard anything negative.”

In stark contrast with New Orleans, after years of litigation with the church, abuse survivors’ attorneys in Santa Fe had obtained a major storehouse of documents when the bankruptcy there began.

Hiding church secrets was not an issue, as it is in New Orleans, where the church is battling for control over its sickest secrets.

Early on, Trahant, as well as his fellow attorneys John Denenea and Soren Gisleson, successfully urged lawyers for the bankruptcy creditors’ committee to file a motion to compel the archdiocese to hand over the same kinds of documents Wester voluntarily released to the public. Judge Grabill has yet to rule on that motion.

Battle lines in New Orleans

A New Orleans native and the archbishop there since 2009, Aymond had met with many clergy abuse survivors before the bankruptcy. Those meetings occurred as he approved $11.7m worth of out-of-court settlements between 2010 and 2020.

The archbishop was supposed to gather with survivors again in the summer of 2022 for a meeting with the bankruptcy creditors’ committee. Survivors had prepared statements to read to him.

Yet the survivors’ anticipated exchange with Aymond imploded when Grabill announced Trahant’s purported secrecy order violation as well as expelled him, his co-counsels Denenea and Gisleson, and four of their clients from involvement with the creditors’ committee. The shunned survivors, who had already arrived at the meeting when it was called off, left with a bitter aftertaste.

Soon, church attorney Mark Mintz and bankruptcy noticing agent Donlin Recano sent Grabill’s order finding that Trahant “knowingly and willfully violated the protective order” governing the bankruptcy to 16,000 recipients (including a girl of 18) through first-class mail. The mass mailing cost nearly $9,200 in postage alone – an expense borne by the bankrupt archdiocese, public court filings show.

Trahant and his wife Amy – who manages her husband’s law office – sued Mintz, Jones Walker and Donlin Recano in state court for infliction of emotional distress, arguing that almost none of the mail recipients were involved in the bankruptcy.

Jones Walker later steered the case to bankruptcy court in front of Grabill, who is listed as having taught a Tulane University law school class with Mintz and as serving alongside him on the advisory board for the New Orleans university’s law review publication.

The lawsuit asserts that Grabill ordered the Trahant investigation at Mintz’s suggestion.

Trahant has a copy of the court trustee’s investigation. But the secrecy order bars him from sharing its contents.

The fine covers more than half the cost of the probe, as outlined in court records: $761,000.

The Guardian obtained unpublished documents – not from Trahant – in which Brother Martin’s attorney, responding to interrogatories from bankruptcy court lawyers, telegraphs disdain for being dragged into strife over an alleged secrecy breach.

The school’s principal, Ryan Gallagher, was trying to learn details of Hart’s abuse which Trahant – his cousin – could not provide, beyond a vague warning about past misconduct. “No formal information or court ordered details were mentioned or provided,” the school lawyer wrote to bankruptcy court investigators about Trahant while stiff-arming other questions.

The documents show a clash of values. Leaders at Brother Martin were upset on learning that Aymond had assigned them a chaplain with a hidden record of sexual misconduct that the archbishop knew about. And the bankruptcy court, along with Aymond’s attorneys, were bent on proving that its confidentiality shield had been breached.

In the documents, school officials assert that Aymond apologized for the details of Hart’s sexual misconduct and for having appointed him to Brother Martin. But the church wanted punishment in symmetry with the court.

Lee Eagan, a lay member of Aymond’s finance committee, called the Brother Martin board’s chairman, asking “how and from whom Brother Martin received information” on Hart, as the school attorney wrote in response to court questions. Aymond called the same board chairman asking “what information was received?” – and how, the school attorney notes.

It was ultimately the archdiocese that provided the details about Hart’s past to Brother Martin. Hart had kissed, groped and had “dry sex” – simulated intercourse while clothed – with a girl, 17, in the early 1990s in a youth group run out of the clergyman’s church at the time, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.

Then, in 2012, the victim – now a mother with her own children attending the same church – reported Hart to the archdiocese after learning that he was working in his old position again.

That complaint prompted an investigation by an archdiocesan board set up to advise Aymond on such allegations. Hart admitted to sexual gratification. But Aymond overruled the advisory board’s finding of an abusive sexual offense, arguing that canon law back then held 16 as the age of consent.

Aymond let Hart stay in ministry, even though church law in 2002 raised the consent age to 18. And when Brother Martin requested a campus chaplain in 2017, Aymond sent Hart.

The all-boys school offers dance and cheer team activities for girls. So in early 2022, Brother Martin asked Aymond to “relieve Hart”, school president Greg Rando wrote in an email to the campus’s governing board. Hart wrote to Aymond that he would step aside “until the matter … has been resolved”.

Rando advised the school attorney of “several calls from … Aymond apologizing for the situation and requesting updates … of Hart”.

Aymond soon imposed retirement on Hart.

As New Orleans’s Times-Picayune newspaper prepared an article on the circumstances of Hart’s resignation, the archdiocese released a statement to the outlet saying Hart had retired solely to focus on battling brain cancer, from which he died last year.

Later, in a publicly released “finding of fact” document that outlined her reasons for sanctioning Trahant, Grabill wrote that Hart was “out of work on extended medical leave and thus had no contact with minors” at the time his past fell under scrutiny.

But Brother Martin portrayed the sequence of events quite differently. The school sent a letter to students’ parents saying Hart had retired at Brother Martin’s request after it learned of “an issue from [his] distant past that could preclude his being able to serve as chaplain”. The letter made no mention of Hart’s health.

The behind-the-scenes communications also show the church seeking information on Trahant alongside the investigators appointed by Grabill.

[The judge] moved with lightning speed on Trahant warning a school about an abuser. We were collateral damage

Clergy abuse survivor James Adams

Two federal district court judges have left Trahant’s fine in place. He has now sought relief from the US fifth circuit court of appeals. The case remains pending.

A kick in the gut

Grabill’s dismissal of four survivors from the creditors’ committee in the wake of the Hart drama was “a kick in the gut”, as one of them, James Adams, said.

Adams, 53, said: “She moved with lightning speed on Trahant warning a school about an abuser. We were collateral damage. After two years, she hadn’t ruled on a motion to compel disclosure of church files. It took us [survivors] hard preparation and anxious moments, preparing to confront Aymond. Two years into the bankruptcy, he was personally there for the first time to meet with us. We never got the chance.”

Adams’s odyssey offers another viewpoint on the fortress-church strategy that the archdiocese has adopted on the advice of its bankruptcy attorneys.

Abused as a boy by the late Father James Collery at a parochial school in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Adams graduated from Jesuit high in 1988, just behind his future attorney, Trahant.

Adams buried his trauma within, only to find it spilling out decades later. As a bank officer, settled with children, he had marriage problems rooted in the abuse. Adams was a president and board member of the Catholic Community Foundation, raising funds for church causes. He had been friendly with Aymond, having once served as an altar boy for him.

In 2013, Adams chose Aymond to tell about the abuse. The archbishop apologized and offered to cover Adams’s therapy costs.

But having to continually go back to the archdiocese and request payment for the therapy left Adams feeling demeaned. In 2019, he privately asked Aymond for a financial settlement to let him deal with his issues on his own terms while still serving on the Catholic Community Foundation.

The tables quickly turned. A law firm contacted Adams’s employer and therapist requesting his personal files, seeking information. “I sat there stunned,” he said. “I didn’t have an attorney at that point. They were asking for medical files from my time in grade school, high school and college.”

Adams called Trahant. Aymond forced Adams off the Catholic Community Foundation.

Trahant and his co-counsels agreed to seek a negotiated settlement for Adams, who believed the archdiocese would do right by him after listing his abuser as credibly accused in 2018.

But then Aymond’s archdiocese declared bankruptcy, halting the case indefinitely. That also forced Adams to face the church as something he never wanted to be – an adversary – in a venue where the church was only starting to marshal its power.

  • This series will continue on Friday, when Jason Berry examines how bankruptcy court gives dioceses the same relief as commercial companies – while also allowing them to wield advantages most parties don’t have.