Ex-Greenberg Traurig Litigator Seeks Redemption for Sex Abuse Victims

Ex-Greenberg Traurig Litigator Seeks Redemption for Sex Abuse Victims Photo: Swampyank via Wikimedia Commons St. George's School in Middletown, Rhode Island.

More than a decade ago, Roderick “Eric” MacLeish Jr. suffered a personal crisis and retreated from his career after representing victims of clergy sex abuse in a landmark $85 million settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Now, after a long hiatus, the former partner at Greenberg Traurig and Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott is once again actively practicing law. Not only that, he’s thrown himself into another high-profile battle over alleged childhood sexual abuse by former faculty members and students at an elite private boarding school, although litigation has yet to be filed.

This week, a day after handling an emotionally grueling press conference alongside his current clients—former students alleging abuse while they attended the St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island—MacLeish said that reprising his earlier role was an unexpected development.

“I never dreamed six years ago that I would ever be able to do this again,” MacLeish said.

In 2010, The Boston Globe profiled MacLeish’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, sparked by the realization that he, like his earlier clients, had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. MacLeish has said that the abuse occurred at a boarding school in East Sussex, England, where his parents lived for a time before returning to the U.S. (MacLeish is the son of the late political commentator of the same name.)

MacLeish, now of counsel at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Clark, Hunt, Ahern & Embry, found himself in the news again late last year as a result of his role in the Catholic clergy abuse cases in Boston. In “Spotlight,” a critically acclaimed 2015 film based on The Globe’s role in unearthing the abuse scandal, actor Billy Crudup plays MacLeish on the big screen. (The Globe reported in November that MacLeish was less than excited about his portrayal in the movie, but he has encouraged people to see the film.)

The American Lawyer profiled the work of MacLeish and other lawyers pursuing cases against the Catholic Church back in 2002, a year before the defendants agreed to pay $85 million to settle abuse claims by than 500 victims. A founding partner of Greenberg Traurig and Eckert Seamans’ Boston offices, MacLeish was at the forefront of the litigation.

In an interview this week, MacLeish described his situation during the earlier abuse litigation as incredibly unhealthy. He said he functioned well in his professional life—staying strong in intense public appearances, trial work and deposition of the notoriously powerful Cardinal Bernard Law. But behind closed doors, MacLeish said flashbacks to his own ordeal had become debilitating. They stopped him from feeling safe, being active (he enjoyed skiing with his family) and participating in social events, he said. To make matters worse, MacLeish said that he was persistently overcome by a pervasive sadness.

In 2004, MacLeish began seeing a therapist with whom he would have an affair and start a relationship. The therapist later lost her license as a result of that affair, but MacLeish’s marriage fell apart, and his relationship with his family suffered. On the verge of a breakdown, he left Greenberg Traurig in 2006 and retreated to New Hampshire, where he turned his focus to a different set of professional duties as a college professor at Plymouth State University, teaching courses on legal issues and stress management.

MacLeish doesn’t like to discuss this period in his life, one already covered in depth by The Globe six years ago. He said it was around that time he realized he missed practicing law. Instead of returning to a big firm, MacLeish joined a group of “good friends” at Clark Hunt, a 14-lawyer personal injury shop, where he remains to this day. He calls it “the most comfortable place [one] would ever want to work as a lawyer.”

When he first returned to Clark Hunt, MacLeish said he focused on research and legal briefs, neither wanting nor intending to return to trial work. But he had a change of heart three years ago. Last year, MacLeish took the lead in a class action suit against Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital accused of sending mentally ill patients into lengthy periods of isolation in violation of a 1988 agreement MacLeish had previously negotiated with the state.

It was another former client, Anne Scott, who helped prompt MacLeish’s return to the public eye. Back in 1989, MacLeish represented Scott in a suit she filed against St. George’s, an elite Episcopalian boarding school located just north of the affluent seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island.

Scott’s suit claimed that Al Gibbs, a now deceased athletic trainer at the school, had raped her. MacLeish described Scott’s terrible allegations, and how a former defense attorney for the registered nonprofit suggested that Scott, as a 15-year-old girl, could have had consensual sex with the 67-year-old Gibbs. Scott ultimately decided to drop her case, but with a gag order placed on her afterward, which didn’t sit right with MacLeish.

“I became a lawyer because I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like bullies who are in a position of power,” said MacLeish (pictured right), noting the tough opponents he’s run into throughout his career, including Harvard University, the state of Massachusetts and, of course, the Catholic Church. St. George’s, which MacLeish also attended, although he said he was never abused there, is merely his latest adversary.

Scott spent some time in Singapore working in maternal health, but after she returned to the U.S. a few years ago she reconnected with MacLeish. They both decided to once again take on St. George’s, which in December released the results of an internal investigation into incidents of abuse at the school. (William Hannum III, managing partner of Andover, Massachusetts-based Schwartz Hannum, a firm that has also been a legal adviser to St. George’s, prepared the 11-page report.)

In early 2015, St. George’s sent out a series of letters to alumni, outlining plans to launch a probe into abuse claims over the last 50 years and offering aid for therapy costs. Other individuals, including Harry Groome and Katie Wales Lovkay, stepped forward to form a group of 40 former students accusing St. George’s of covering up decades of abuse. MacLeish said more victims are likely, adding that the number of potential claimants could surpass those in another matter involving New York’s Horace Mann School, in which more than 60 victims have come forward in one of the largest-ever series of private school sex abuse cases.

Federal tax filings show that Horace Mann spent nearly $2.7 million in 2013-2014 on legal fees to Schulte Roth & Zabel, which has been representing the school during its sex abuse scandal. St. George’s own tax filings, the latest of which also covers fiscal 2013-2014, reveal no large legal bills. MacLeish, who has criticized Hannum’s independence, pushed the school to retain another outside firm to represent St. George’s and conduct an independent inquiry into sex abuse claims.

The school has acknowledged concerns about Hannum’s report, which it defended in a statement last month. “Questions have been raised regarding the structure of the investigation, in which one member of the firm is serving as investigator, while another partner represents and advises the school,” the school said. “While the question is an understandable one, this sort of structure is not unusual and has been used in many investigations similar to ours.”

Nonetheless, on Thursday, St. George’s bowed to mounting pressure from the public and a 40-member victims group, called SGS for Healing, and agreed to conduct a new inquiry. The school has retained Ropes & Gray, which has previous experience with institutional matters of sex abuse, having issued a report last year into a series of similar incidents at the American School in Japan.

James Dowden, a former federal prosecutor who rejoined Ropes & Gray’s Boston headquarters four years ago this month and took the lead for the firm last year on the ASIJ report, is now representing St. George’s along with associate Sara Gutierrez Dunn. (Dowden is a government enforcement partner who also co-heads Ropes & Gray’s anti-corruption core practice.) Ropes & Gray declined to comment on its role advising St. George’s, but MacLeish said he “couldn’t be more pleased” to have Dowden and Dunn involved for the school.

MacLeish’s legal team includes Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig III and Boston solo practitioner Carmen Durso. On behalf of their clients and SGS for Healing, the lawyers have all pushed St. George’s to pursue an independent investigation. MacLeish said criminal prosecution of living perpetrators is a top priority for his team, as is changing the way schools such as St. George’s report alleged sexual predators to the authorities. He noted that two former faculty members at the school accused of abuse moved on to similar positions elsewhere.

Civil litigation against St. George’s is also a possibility, said MacLeish, adding that the sex abuse victims he represents are entitled to the support and therapy they need. (Perhaps not surprisingly, after Ropes & Gray released its ASIJ report, a mediator helped broker a settlement between the Tokyo-based school and sex abuse victims.)

MacLeish, having survived his own odyssey of abuse, said he has arrived at a better place at this point in his life. He is now in regular, healthy therapy sessions and remarried. He credits his former and current wives with helping him regain his footing.

Other essential parts of his path to recovery, MacLeish said, include good nutrition, exercise, meditation and holding strong to the idea of hope. It helps to have clients who know his ordeal and are fellow sex abuse survivors, he said.

“I love what I’m doing now,” added MacLeish. “The beginning was a little tough, [but] just to be in the presence of people like Anne Scott and Harry Groome and Katie Wales, it doesn’t get any better as an attorney or a human being.”

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