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There is a crisis in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Federal Judges Wendy Vitter, Jay Zainey, Sarah Vance, Ivan Lemelle and Lance Africk immediately recused themselves from the archdiocese of New Orleans' federal bankruptcy case. They are just some of New Orleans' 14 federal district judges and five magistrates and mostly handle pretrial matters. Later, under pressure, federal Judges Greg Guidry and Michael North reluctantly recused themselves when their extended involvement in the Catholic Church was exposed —involvement that went well beyond just being Catholic and attending Mass on Sundays.
As a practicing Catholic, I believe I can objectively examine this question and will offer my opinion. Besides being baptized and confirmed, my Catholic bonafides are that I'm a liturgist, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. I facilitate a weekly Mass for victims and survivors of childhood sex abuse who struggle with their faith. The Mass is led by Fr. Ryszard Biernat, a whistleblower priest who was also molested as a seminarian. We were all raped by pedophile priests. But in spite of what happened to us, by the grace of God, we still manage to keep our faith.
Generally speaking, Catholics tend to be good people, they are grounded in their faith and practice their religion in all aspects of their lives. They live the teachings of Christ and are productive citizens. When they become successful, they have the propensity to become civic leaders and philanthropists and follow through on their urge to volunteer in our communities. Among our group, we often say, "I was born Catholic and will die Catholic." Catholics often self-identify as Catholics before they even identify themselves as Americans. It is a very strong religion but one that is fading because of the plague of various scandals in recent decades. It's not only the child sex abuse atrocity and the subsequent cover-up, but many in the Church are divided over the LGBT issue — not to mention massive financial fraud.
With that said, can Catholic federal judges rule objectively on Catholic Church cases?
The issue at hand is the federal judge's sealing of all documents of the civil cases against the archdiocese of New Orleans, headed by Abp. Gregory Aymond. The documents contain evidence of numerous sex abuse crimes of the children of New Orleans by the archdiocese and details of the Church's extensive cover-up of these crimes and the cover-up of the cover-up, when the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Aaron Hebert, an SCSA member, was molested by Msgr. Lawrence Hecker when he was a child. Upon hearing that Judge North sealed the documents, he wrote an open letter to Judge North, and SCSA followed up that letter with a news story requesting that Judge North recuse himself. Shortly thereafter, North did quietly recuse himself.
According to the American Bar Association,
An "appearance of impropriety" occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge's honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired. Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. This prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.
In the cases of these judges, there is clear evidence of conflicts of interest, which leads to the appearance of impropriety.
The St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers' Association, a nonprofit recognized by the state of Louisiana but not the Internal Revenue Service (we could not find them in the database of federally recognized nonprofits), is an organization of Catholic attorneys in the archdiocese of New Orleans with a mission to promote the ideals of St. Thomas More and professionalism in the law. The vast majority of the Catholic judges in New Orleans are members of this organization and attend the annual St. Thomas More Society's Red Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. So what is the conflict of interest? Every citizen has the freedom of religion, including judges. The problem is that being a member of this society entails more than just being a practicing Catholic who attends regular mass and puts a few bucks in the basket every Sunday.
According to their membership application, they must take and affirm an oath:
I solemnly declare that I am a practicing Roman Catholic and intend to remain such; that I will accept and abide by the Charter and By Laws of The St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Association; and that I will maintain the ethics and ideals of the legal profession as befits a Catholic lawyer.
The Catholic religion, in general, requires strict loyalty and obedience to the Church. This is further amplified in the oath judges must take and affirm in order to become members of the society. Furthermore, the Red Mass that the judges attend is led by the archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, who is the latest principal architect of the archdiocese of New Orleans' child sex abuse cover-up. SCSA has requested the charter and by laws of the society from both the society and the state of Louisiana, and neither have responded to our requests as of this writing.
Let's review some of the federal judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana who have recused themselves.
Federal Judge Jay Zainey was one of the first in a cadre of judges who immediately recused themselves upon the announcement of the archdiocese's bankruptcy. He has admitted extensive ties to the archdiocese of New Orleans and has publicly admitted that he participated in the formation of the Church's "List of Credibly Accused Priests," along with Greg Bensel, the senior vice president of communications for the New Orleans Saints football team. There are two blaring issues with Judge Zainey's ability to objectively hear cases against the Catholic Church.
First among them is his participation in the creation of the list of credibly accused priests. This activity of assisting the Church by curating this list is extremely inappropriate for a sitting federal judge and can also be characterized as being complicit in the cover-up of the child sex abuse in the archdiocese. It's certainly unethical, as it was SCSA and other news agencies' investigations that led to the addition of many more priests to the credibly accused list after its initial publishing by the archdiocese. And second, sadly, after his recusal, he said that he "would recuse himself from future Church-related cases." Yet, he went on to rule in favor of the archdiocese, when he ruled that a recent law passed in Louisiana that eliminated the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children was unconstitutional, a law that was unanimously passed by the Louisiana State House of Representatives, Senate and Governor that was challenged by the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Abp. Aymond is the chairman. The constitutionality of this law currently sits with the Louisiana Supreme Court, and their final ruling is forthcoming shortly.
Zainey didn't respond to a request for comment. Because of these ethical concerns regarding Judge Zainey, in the coming weeks, SCSA will file formal complaints with both the Louisiana and American Bar Associations.
Judge North is a federal magistrate in the Louisiana Eastern District. He was the judge who initially sealed the civil case's documentation when the cases were moved from state court to the federal bankruptcy of the archdiocese. His conflict of interest centers around his wife, and, according to sources, he enthusiastically lobbied to get the case assigned to his court.
Terri North, was an employee and/or consultant of the archdiocese for more than 20 years at the highest levels, implementing a strategic plan for the entire archdiocese over 5–10 years, overseeing the restructuring of 72 elementary schools and developing 13 housing properties totaling 1,200 rental units. The magistrate's spouse continues to perform work for archdiocese apostolates. The magistrate's spouse has developed at least 7 projects for archdiocese apostolates costing in the tens of millions. The magistrate's spouse's offices were purchased from the archdiocese. The land that the magistrate's spouse's offices sits on is currently leased from the archdiocese. The archdiocese loaned the magistrate's spouse's company at least $650,000 for a development project. The magistrate's spouse signed numerous land transfers, leases and financial instruments with the archdiocese or one of its apostolates. The magistrate's spouse currently serves on the board of directors of an archdiocese apostolate, and the finances between the magistrate's spouse's company and the archdiocese are inextricably intertwined.
In a subsequent hearing for his recusal filed by Hebert's attorneys, in a reasonable inquiry, Judge North admonished and scolded Hebert's attorneys, which is germane to the American Bar Association's definition of "the appearance of impropriety" regarding the "impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge." Judge North quietly recused himself from the archdiocese bankruptcy after the hearing, bolstered by Aaron Hebert's public open letter to North and SCSA's reporting of his extensive association with the archdiocese.
Judge Guidry is the latest judge to recuse himself, and he did not go quietly. Guidry's role was to oversee the archdiocese bankruptcy as an appellant judge. He initially stated, "Based upon my certainty that I can be fair and impartial, I have decided not to recuse myself." However, there was much more to the story, as his disclosure of his connections to the archdiocese was far from complete. Guidry was the second judge who denied a request to unseal secret Church documents that outlined how the archdiocese addressed clergy suspected of sexually abusing children, including more than 80 priests and deacons who the archdiocese admitted were strongly suspected of preying on minors.
Keith Swisher, a professor of legal ethics at the University of Arizona said, "It would create a mess and a cloud of suspicion over every ruling he's made." He described the judge's donations as "more like fire than smoke." University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said he believed Guidry should recuse himself. Tobias said, "It does sound to me like there are enough connections between the judge and the Church and the counsel ... to at least ask that question." And when asked if Guidry should recuse himself, he said, "That's a legitimate question to ask." Legal ethics professor Kathleen Clark chimed in saying, "The public shouldn't have to rely on a judge's personal certainty about his own rectitude." She also said that Guidry's initial resistance to recusal was "misguided and ethically blind."
Campaign finance records found that Guidry, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump, had given nearly $50,000 to archdiocese charities from leftover contributions he received. A $36,000 donation was discovered months after the archdiocese sought bankruptcy protection in May 2020, amid a crush of sexual abuse lawsuits. It also included a $12,000 donation to the archdiocese's Catholic Community Foundation on the same day of a series of filings in the bankruptcy, in addition to a $14,000 donation to the same archdiocese charity during July of the following year.
Guidry's donations over the years included private donations. A publication by Catholic Charities of New Orleans, overseen by the Archdiocese, asserted Guidry and his wife were donors for unspecified contributions, in 2017 listing both the Guidry and his campaign. Guidry also provided pro bono services, serving as a board member for Catholic Charities between 2000 and 2008, at a time when the archdiocese was dealing with a previous wave of sex abuse lawsuits. Catholic Charities was involved in a million-dollar settlement to victims beaten and sexually abused at two orphanages.
Guidry recently upheld a $400,000 sanction against Richard Trahant, Aaron Hebert's attorney, who is an accomplished attorney for clergy abuse victims and survivors, who was accused of violating a confidentiality order when he alerted a local principal that his school had hired a priest who admitted to sex abuse. Then the media outlet The Guardian asked Guidry about his connections to local attorney John Litchfield, who was paid at least $80,000 directly from the local church. Litchfield told The Guardian that an associate at his firm had landed his office work defending some archdiocesan affiliates. Upon receiving The Guardian's request on his relationship with Litchfield, Guidry finally, summarily, recused himself through a U.S. federal courts spokesperson, without further explanation.
Currently, the case to unseal the documents is in the court of federal Judge Jane Triche Milazzo. New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams jumped into the fray, requesting that the documents be unsealed. In addition, advocacy organizations such as ChildUSAdvocacy, Child USA and others filed amicus briefs in support of the unsealing of the documents, which contains evidence of Catholic priests sexually abusing children and evidence of the archdiocese's cover-up of their institutionalized, systematic and wholesale rape of the children of New Orleans and Louisiana.
At a hearing on June 15th, before the hearing started, Milazzo admitted to going to Catholic school and that she is a practicing Catholic, attends Mass and makes donations to the Church. She asked if there were any concerns, and no concerns were expressed. The hearing proceeded, and Judge Milazzo heard the arguments but did not immediately rule. However, Milazzo called a sidebar with Jason Williams, and a journalist overheard her telling Williams, "You know what you need to do."
After the hearing, Aaron Hebert's attorneys requested her recusal. A meeting between the attorneys and Milazzo was scheduled, but then it suddenly canceled, and she ordered the recusal to be filed in a motion, which Hebert's attorney filed upon her request. Absent of additional information about the request for Milazzo's for recusal, I will not assert or speculate on the dynamics of that request.
As I outlined above, Catholics are fine people, and their right to practice their religion is a matter of constitutional law and must be protected. But can a judge who is Catholic objectively rule in cases involving the Catholic Church? I think it all boils down to his involvement in the Church. If a judge is Catholic, practices his faith by attending Mass and makes regular weekly donations to the Church, I say yes, emphatically. A Catholic judge can indeed objectively rule on cases in which the Catholic Church is involved. As evidence of this, there is the passing of the new statute of limitations law. I was initially skeptical, but SCSA sent a busload of victims and survivors to the Capitol and testified in House and Senate hearings. Their testimonies were horrific, gut-wrenching and very compelling. As a result, the almost entirely Catholic Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed the bill and gave victims and survivors more than they asked for. Finally, a path to justice.
However, when a judge is extensively involved in the Catholic Church, like Judges Guidry, North and Zainey, my answer is a resounding no. These judges have a consistent and extensive history of almost always ruling in the archdiocese's favor. And public trust is eroded when we investigate their involvement only to discover that, upon inquiry, their disclosures were either completely absent and/or grossly incomplete. It is, indeed, a very appropriate question to ask: "At this point, is the United States Eastern District Court of Louisiana completely compromised?"