Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Representing Clergy Abuse Victims Takes Its Toll

Reporter Denise Lavoie at DelawareOnline.com  discusses the toll paid by lawyers in clergy sex abuse lawsuits.  I was one of these. Here's her story:

"Attorney Ray Boucher (pic, right) helped secure a record $660 million settlement from the Los Angeles Archdiocese on behalf of more than 500 people molested by priests. Five days after the settlement was announced, his wife left him.

Eric MacLeish, the hard-charging lawyer whose work for victims helped spur the resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002, later suffered a breakdown, stopped practicing law and got divorced.

And Steve Rubino, once such an observant Catholic he couldn't believe a priest would molest a child, lost his faith and eventually retired from the law.

'It moved me completely out of whatever religious context I was in -- completely,' he said.

The sex scandal that rocked the nation's Roman Catholic Church took a fearsome personal toll on some of the top lawyers who dared to challenge the institution.

While many of them ultimately reaped large fees for their services, the all-consuming workload, the pressure of battling the church and the stress of listening to graphic accounts of children's suffering were debilitating.

Since taking his first such case in 2003, Delaware attorney Thomas S. Neuberger (pic, left) said Saturday, 'the stresses have been immense.'  He and his law partner/son Stephen J. Neuberger now have 98 cases against the Diocese of Wilmington, 14 claims against the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and three involving the Norbertine religious order that operates Archmere Academy.

The elder Neuberger said he went into the sex-scandal litigation as a veteran of intense government corruption and civil rights cases, suing entities from the Pentagon to the Delaware State Police, as well as administrative agencies, counties and municipalities, but, he said, "the difficulty of litigating against the Roman Catholic Church makes cases against the Pentagon look like Little Bo Peep.

'It is at a level of intensity and difficulty that everything else in my experience pales in comparison,' he said. 'These are the most difficult cases in my 36 years of experience.'

Sylvia Demarest, a lawyer who helped win a $119.6 million verdict against the Diocese of Dallas in 1997 and later built a national database on clergy sex-abuse cases, said, 'No one can handle these cases and come out of it the same.'  Demarest, now semi- retired, said she grew frustrated with her inability to heal the wounds suffered by her clients. 'What happens to kids when they're abused and what happens to their brains when they are abused is something that we don't know how to fix,' she said.

The crisis exploded in Boston in 2002, after internal church documents released publicly showed that church leaders for decades had shuffled sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. The scandal spread across the country as thousands of lawsuits were filed by people who claimed they had been victimized.

Caring for people with the aftermath of such victimization weighs heavily on Neuberger.

The abuse survivors are people whose lives have been 'ruined ... people with diagnoses of major depression, suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, some already having taken their lives, people with a complex of emotional and psychiatric issues,'  Neuberger said. 'The responsibility and burden of trying to hold those people together in the face of the onslaught, the slash-and-burn-delay, is almost overwhelming, almost overwhelming.'

Emotionally rattled

For MacLeish, the clergy cases reawakened memories of being sexually abused as a child.

MacLeish and other lawyers won an $85 million settlement in Boston in 2003 for more than 500 victims. But in the months after the landmark settlement was announced, MacLeish began to unravel. He developed insomnia and nausea, lost 40 pounds and couldn't work.

He was rattled by the image of a 9-year-old boy who was repeatedly sodomized over nine hours by a priest. The boy buried his bloody underwear so his mother wouldn't find out.

'The idea of him going off into the woods and burying his underwear, that really got to me,' MacLeish said. MacLeish had been sexually abused by a family friend during a camping trip at 15. And he had memories of being molested at an English boarding school he attended as a boy.

'I began to realize why I had been doing this work and how much my own abuse had affected me,' he said. He said his pursuit of the church 'was absolutely never about money.' He added: 'The wealth I received was the knowledge that I had really helped my clients and helped to change the Catholic Church.'

Rubino, who retired last year after more than 20 years of representing clergy sex-abuse victims, was incredulous after a family friend came to him in 1987 and said a priest had sexually assaulted her 14-year-old son.  'I said, 'Well, that's impossible. Priests are celibate. What are you talking about?' ' recalled Rubino, who grew up in a large Italian Catholic family.  Rubino, whose law office was in Margate City, N.J., spent the next 15 years becoming a canon law expert. He traveled all over the U.S. and to Ireland, Canada and Australia to represent victims and help other lawyers. Story after story of abuse left Rubino disheartened about the Catholic Church.

'I was a true believer. I said my Hail Marys, my Act of Contrition, I learned Latin, I served Mass, I believed in God,'  he said. 'I don't do any of that now.'  At the height of the scandal, Rubino was working 16- to 20-hour days and traveling constantly. His wife and three children resented it. 'While I was [home], I was never there,'  he said. 'I was a second away from the next text, the next e-mail, the next phone call from a client.'

Rubino's marriage survived, but Boucher's did not. Boucher's wife left him right after the 2007 settlement in Los Angeles.  'She just said, 'Look, you're on top of the world, the press is surrounding you, I haven't accomplished what I want to accomplish in life, and I just don't feel like I can stay with you,' Boucher said.

Before that, Boucher had plowed through hundreds of cases in Los Angeles, and mostly managed to 'box it up and store it away.'  But, at times, the enormity of the pain caused by the abuse was overwhelming.

In 2004, Boucher was editing DVDs of victims describing how they were raped or otherwise molested by a priest. He saw a pile of about 150 DVDs ready to be mailed to Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony. Each DVD cover had a picture of the victim as a child, as they were when they were assaulted. 'I was stunned. I looked at them, and I'm sure I started to cry,' Boucher recalled. 'I will never lose that image.''

Few have regret, though

MacLeish's marriage also ended in divorce. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he began seeing a psychologist. Within two months, they were sleeping together and their affair led to his divorce, MacLeish said.  Neuberger, 63, said he feels lucky that instead of destroying his marriage, 'the stress has done nothing but pull us together.'  MacLeish, now a professor who teaches civil rights and criminal procedure at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, said he doesn't regret the work he did, despite the toll it took on him and his family.

'There is not one case that I've heard of since 2004 where a known pedophile has been placed by the church into an organization where he would be able to do it again,' he said.

Rubino, 61, now spends time with his family and works as chief executive of a sports performance training center for kids. Rubino said it is a respite from the work he used to do. 'For the hundreds of damaged young lives I represented, the kids at [the center] are at the opposite end of the spectrum,'  he said.

Boucher, 53, continues to represent victims. 'I can't imagine walking away from people who are suffering from the isolation of sexual abuse,' he said. 'I don't know how -- no matter what the personal, emotional toll might be -- I don't know how you walk away from that.'
I met most of these men or talked to them over the phone in the early years of the clergy sex abuse crisis.  With Jeff Anderson, and many, many others including my former "partner" Nancy, we were the pioneers.  We took on cases that were absolutely "hopeless."  In Chicago, many years ago, we met at the behest of Jeff Anderson and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP.)   These are very fine lawyers who care very deeply about their clients.  Ideas like obtaining and utilizing images of survivors from the time frame of the abuse were exchanged--I had already published a brief here in OurState that incorporated black and white photographs of my then 40 something and 50 something-year old clients in their communion dresses and responded to motions to strike filed by the attorneys for the Catholic Church.

Jeff, Ray, Steve, Sylvia, and Eric have the cold comfort of eventual financial successes; while here, in OurState, the Supreme Court kept the lid sealed on the statute of limitations and the OurState General Assembly, until very recently, kept the limitation period at 1 and 2 years for victims of sex crimes.

Setting the aside the stress of a client-base, of victims of crimes on the level of soul and spiritual death as well as clients who committed actual suicides--my financial debts, and judgments accrued in the years of that effort will not go away absent some sort of unforeseen miracle.   If this sounds like the "poor me"s, yeah I'm feeling pretty low as I write this.  Almost twenty years ago, I was warned by a psychologist that the risk of acquired-PTSD was a real.  As this story accurately sets out, as an attorney having clients who have suffered these sorts of horrors and dealing with defendant with bottomless resources to crush them and you--well there's not enough money to make it worth it.

And yet, the effort by Anderson, Boucher, Demarest, Rubino, and we idiots from OurState--did change the world.  Think about this, twenty years ago, victims who came forward were dismissed as crazy, liars, fraudsters--in many cases by their own families.  I sat through deposition after deposition while these courageous men and women had their sex lives cross-examined under a microscope by lawyers for the Catholic Church.  Judges in OurState thought that was fair game, after all, these Judges were for the most part Catholic, and educated in Catholic elementary, middle, high schools and universities.  The Catholic Church gamed the system, and when the public pressure lets up, they'll game it some more.  The Church crushed me, of course, I played my own Bad part in creating and ignoring the financial black hole.

I'm exhausted, just thinking about it.  I'm shedding the tears, still.


  1. As Archdioceses are forced by Courts to turn over documents, new statistics show 10 percent of priests in the U.S. were pedophiles, 20-200 times higher than other professions.* As a victim and journalist I write about these crimes at City of Angels Blog http://cityofangels8.blogspot.com/ and I know from experience that the Catholic Church is still doing all it can to cover up these felony sex crimes against children. The Bishops, Monsignors, and Cardinals are the guilty parties. YES the pedophile epidemic in the Catholic Church is a Crime Against Humanity that calls for international prosecution. (*Stats are per bishopaccountability.org )

  2. Thank you. Bless you for the information.

  3. and the general public would like to think it is all about money so each can distance himself from the ongoing reality of priest child abuse. Priest child abuse happens to other people's kids. In my town, they assume it's over. I applaud the lawyers who have been there and done that. As Churchill said, "It is not the end; it is not even the beginning, but it is the end of the beginning." Mikell Grafton,Louisville, Ky.