Lawyer who tipped off an accused priest faces $400,000 for violating protection order
A bankruptcy judge in New Orleans has fined an attorney representing victims of priest abuse $400,000 for providing evidence of allegations against a Catholic priest in violation of a protection order.
US Bankruptcy Judge Meredith S. Grabill of the Eastern District of Louisiana imposed the sanction in an Oct. 11 order on attorney Richard C. Trahant of Metairie, Louisiana.
Trahant had represented plaintiffs for priest abuse in the bankruptcy of the Catholic Church’s New Orleans Archdiocese. Grabill had signed an order protecting confidential discovery information in the case.
The trustee was investigating after a church attorney told the court that someone had improperly disclosed proprietary information about a priest accused of sexual misconduct. The priest later worked as a chaplain at a local high school before taking a medical leave.
The information was shared with the high school and a reporter.
The investigation concluded that trahant was “at least one source of the leak,” Grabill said.
Trahant said in a statement and testimony that he contacted his cousin, who worked as the principal of the high school where the priest had worked as a chaplain. Trahant gave the priest’s name and asked his cousin if the priest was still working at the school. Trahant acknowledged that his cousin knew about the nature of his legal practice and would infer that the priest had a history of alleged sexual abuse.
Trahant also emailed a reporter with the priest’s name in the subject line, told the reporter where the priest was employed, and advised the reporter to “keep him on the radar.” The reporter had previously written stories about allegations of priest abuse.
However, Trahant said he did not give either his cousin or the reporter any electronic or physical documents. And he did not disclose its contents, he said.
When questioned by the judge, Trahant admitted that he “planted a seed” with his cousin and the reporter.
“I think this stuff needs to be exposed,” he explained.
The trustee conducting the investigation admitted unanswered questions about whether anyone else had shared documents or information with a third party. Grabill said she still has a responsibility to protect the integrity of the bankruptcy process and will sanction Trahant. She previously removed him from involvement in the bankruptcy.
“Not only did Trahant disregard this court’s protective order, but his subsequent evasiveness and failure to provide timely information regarding his own conduct to Counsel for the Committee and the Debtor constitute malicious acts inflicted on the Debtor, the Committee and the Debtor.” [U.S. trustee] to unnecessarily divert and expend resources uncovering information Trahant had all along,” Grabill wrote.
Grabill based the sanction on a percentage of legal fees billed to the bankruptcy estate in connection with the Archdiocese’s inquiry request. The $400,000 penalty is 53% of the total fees incurred.
Trahant told the ABA Journal that there would “definitely be an appeal” of the sanctions order.
“I have stated that I do not believe anything I have done constitutes a violation of the protective order,” Trahant said. “A name is public information, and I repeat what I’ve said over and over again. I did what I felt was morally, legally, and ethically correct to take a child delinquent off a high school campus.”
When asked if $400,000 was an unreasonable amount, Trahant replied, “Is that a rhetorical question? I know it’s not. I think it’s unprecedented and I’ll leave it at that.”
Trahant also disputed the judge’s conclusion that he caused delays in investigating his conduct.
“I totally disagree,” he says.
Trahant says he tried to write to discuss the matter with archdiocesan lawyers, but they would not speak to him. He says he approached the court “early on” to discuss status conferences, but an injunction barred him from attending.
As he testified at the August 2022 show-cause hearing, Trahant had nothing to hide and he didn’t make “all those attorneys’ fees pile up.”
“As I told the judge, I would have told you from the start what I did and why I did it. But that opportunity was not given to us,” says Trahant.
Trahant says there are already two appeals against the judge’s earlier order removing him, his co-counsel and clients from a committee hearing with the debtor and mediator. One is submitted personally on his behalf, the other is more comprehensive.
Trahant’s personal appeal is pending in a federal district court, while the other appeal is pending in the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Although Trahant’s clients were kicked off the board, their individual claims are still part of the bankruptcy, says Trahant.
When asked if he had anything else to add, Trahant replied: “There’s a ton I’d like to add, but due to the nature of this rambling protective order and the many, many documents that remain classified in this case, I have I’m not in a position to really speak freely about it.”
Kudos to the Guardian and 4WWL for reporting on the sanction.
According to the Guardian, the priest was accused of kissing, groping and having simulated sex with a 17-year-old high school girl.