Victims of church sex abuse have launched a bankruptcy court panel negotiating with the archdiocese
“It could add huge delays to the process on the very day the mediation was supposed to start.”
NEW ORLEANS — Two hours before Church sex abuse victims serving on a court-appointed panel were due to address Archbishop Gregory Aymond in bankruptcy court, a federal judge there ended and removed four of the six victims from the panel.
US Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill said in her order that she was forced to withdraw them because one of their lawyers, Richard Trahant, allegedly disclosed “highly confidential information” in violation of her previous orders.
That leaves just two members remaining on a committee representing about 450 alleged victims of clergy sex abuse in the two-year-old Archdiocese of New Orleans bankruptcy case.
The committee was heading to court on Tuesday to begin mediation, a process to decide how much money the archdiocese owes its creditors. Victims of clergy sex abuse were prepared to argue that the church owed them damages for allegedly allowing the abuse to happen and covering it up.
“It really changes the momentum of the bankruptcy,” said James Adams, the chairman of the committee and one of four who were removed from office because they are represented by Trahant. “It could add huge delays to the process on the very day the mediation was supposed to start.”
Grabill’s order says an investigation by the U.S. Trustee, a court officer who acts as the Justice Department’s neutral representative in bankruptcy cases, found that Trahant disclosed privileged information to a ” third party” anonymous and to the “media”, but the report was filed under seal and remained secret.
Grabill’s order states that due to Trahant’s alleged actions, she was forced to remove her 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 the opportunity to choose another lawyer.
“I’m not a lawyer, but it’s very strange to me that someone else’s perceived actions lead to the judge disciplining committee members,” Adams said. ” It’s shocking. It really is.”
Trahant said punishing his clients for his actions is unfair to them and all victims of sexual abuse they represent.
“Our four clients who were removed from the unsecured creditors committee did nothing wrong,” he said. “These child victims of sexual abuse have selflessly given their time and gone to incredible lengths over the past two years to hold the Archdiocese of New Orleans accountable while representing the interests of approximately 450 survivors of sexual abuse in this bankruptcy. It is a sad day for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and for those who defend them, but we will continue to represent our clients zealously.
As a committee member, Adams had access to sealed court records and he said the judge’s allegation that Trahant leaked confidential information “is not consistent with what I know to be Richard Trahant’s actions. “.
Richard Windmann, head of advocacy group Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse, also lambasted Grabill’s order, saying he “deprived (the victims) of their voice 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 bars Trahant and two attorneys he works with, Soren Gisleson and John Denenea, from further participation in settlement negotiations.
Trahant, Gisleson and Denenea account for nearly one in five plaintiffs alleging child sexual abuse in bankruptcy cases. They also handled nearly all of the three dozen sex abuse lawsuits 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 these civil cases in their tracks, including preventing Aymond and other senior church officials from having to testify under oath in depositions.
And since then, according to court records, Grabill has kept hundreds of documents related to the child sexual abuse allegations secret. According to a July 2020 court transcript, Grabill refused to accept documents into the docket related to allegations of sexual abuse against a living former priest, Lawrence Hecker.
The Archdiocese has acknowledged that 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 trial in a court of State, had not been fully reported to law enforcement. Instead of leaving those documents in the bankruptcy filing, Grabill said she would destroy them because they had previously been sealed in state court.
Trahant and Gisleson said they were not allowed to see the US trustee’s report and were not given a chance to refute the claim that Trahant leaked confidential information. Gisleson said they will challenge the court’s decision.
In a statement to WWL-TV, Trahant suggested the information he leaked was to protect children from an ongoing threat.
“While I am not at liberty to discuss the circumstances surrounding the court order, we will always do what we must to protect children from sexual predators,” Trahant said.
Grabill’s order does not say what information Trahant disclosed or exactly who received it, but it does say it was released to a third party and to the media beginning December 31, 2021.
Less than three weeks later, on January 18, 2022, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate reported that Reverend Paul Hart suddenly left his position as chaplain at Brother Martin High School on January 6. the inquest had determined that Hart violated his vows of celibacy with a 17-year-old girl, but the archdiocese did not officially notify the school until asked to do so on January 13.
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