Federal Judges Guidry, Zainey, Unknown, Archbishop Aymond, Unknown, Federal Judge North
There is a crisis in the Federal Louisiana Eastern District Courts. Federal Judges Wendy Vitter, Jay Zainey, Sarah Vance, Ivan Lemelle, Lance Africk immediately recused themselves from the Archdiocese of New Orleans' Federal Bankruptcy case. They are some of New Orleans’ fourteen federal district judges and five magistrates, who mostly handle pre-trial matters. Later, under pressure, Federal Judges Greg Guidry and Michael North reluctantly recused themselves when their extended involvement in the Catholic Church was exposed, that went well beyond just being Catholic and attending church mass on Sundays.
As a practicing Catholic, I believe I can objectively examine this question and will offer my opinion. My Catholic bonafides are that I was Baptized, Confirmed, and I am a Liturgist, Eucharistic Minister and a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus. I facilitate a weekly mass for victims and survivors of childhood sex abuse who struggle with their faith, led by Father Ryszard Biernat, a whistleblower Priest who he himself was molested in the Church as a Seminarian. Even though we were all raped by pedophile Priests, 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 life. They live the teachings of Christ, and are productive citizens. When they become successful, they have a propensity to become civic leaders, philanthropists, and execute on their urge to volunteer in our communities. There is a saying amongst us that says "I was born Catholic and will die Catholic." Oftentimes, Catholics self-identify as Catholics before we even identify ourselves as Americans. It is a very strong religion, but one that is fading because of the plague of various scandals in recent decades, and there is not only the child sex abuse atrocity and their subsequent coverup, but it is a divided church because of the LGBTQ issue, and 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 Archbishop Gregory Aymond, which contains evidence of numerous sex abuse crimes of the children of New Orleans by the Archdiocese, and details of the Church's extensive coverup of these crimes, and the coverup of the coverup, when the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Aaron Hebert, a SCSA member, was molested by Monsignor 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 interests which leads to the appearance of impropriety.
Judges at The St. Thomas More Society's Red Mass, St Louis Cathedral, New Orleans
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 ever 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 principle architect of the Archdiocese of New Orleans' child sex abuse coverup. 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:
Judge Jay Zainey
Federal Judge Jay Zainey was one of 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 participation of 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 coverup of the child sex abuse in the Archdiocese, and is certainly unethical, as SCSA and other News Agencies investigations that led to the addition many more priests to the list of 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 for 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 Council of Catholic Bishops, of which Archbishop Aymond is the Chairman. The constitutionality of this law currently sits with the Louisiana Supreme Court and their final ruling is shortly forthcoming.
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 Michael North
Judge North, a Federal Magistrate in the Louisiana Eastern District. He was the Judge who initially sealed the civil cases 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 twenty 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 seven 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 are 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 Greg Guidry
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,” and continued describing 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 went on “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 a 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 US federal courts spokesperson, without further explanation.
What is the current status?
Currently, the case to unseal the documents are 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 coverup 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 New Orleans DA Jason Williams, and 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 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 their involvement in the Church. If a judge is Catholic, practices their 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 bus load 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 in the examples of 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 inquiries that 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?"
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Recommended related reading:
SCSA, News, Federal, Judge, Magistrate, Michael North
SCSA, News, New Orleans, Church, Archbishop, Gregory Aymond, New Orleans Saints, Jesuit
Clergy sexual abuse claimant is calling on Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, who has donated money to archdiocese, to step aside
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