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Eric MacLeish started to reach the breaking point the day they evacuated the parking garage. “I had gotten to be on a first-name basis with the Boston bomb squad,” he recalls, “and they used to check under my car with a mirror on the end of a pole. One day, the guy thought he saw something, and we all just took off out of there.” It was a false alarm. But MacLeish was feeling more than a little beleaguered: “I was fed up with the firm. And I was fed up with the church.” The firm was Pittsburgh’s Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott. MacLeish had been a partner in its Boston office for about three years. The church was the Catholic archdiocese of Boston. MacLeish had been threatening its hierarchy with suits on behalf of plaintiffs who claimed leaders had ignored or abetted sexual abuse at the hands of priests. But the year was 1993. And the Catholic church in Boston was not widely perceived as the sometimes callously, sometimes conspiratorially self-protective institution that is under fire today. Just the opposite. MacLeish was a famous object of ire. “There were bomb threats. I had bodyguards. There was a gunshot at our house,” MacLeish recalls. “Eckert Seamans was evacuated practically every day. I’d had it.” Beyond hostility, MacLeish confronted enormity. His list of abuse claims had bulged from the original six to more than 100. Only after repeated lobbying did his firm allow MacLeish to bring on one partner to assist in his crusade. At once, he called his old law school friend Robert Sherman. Five years earlier, when Sherman was in private practice, they had teamed to successfully defend an autism treatment center charged with patient abuse. Although Sherman had since become special counsel to the Massachusetts attorney general, he was ready to sign on with his old law school friend again, this time under the same roof. MORE THAN 200 SETTLEMENTS Together, MacLeish and Sherman continued jousting with the diocese. They won more than 200 settlements, leading to one predatory priest’s imprisonment, the defrocking of at least a half-dozen others, and the enactment of apparent reforms in the system. They have no regrets. “It’s not like we took the money and ran,” says MacLeish. “Some clients had confidentiality agreements on the payout amounts, but the offending priests were named and removed.” The threats also stopped. As their practice returned somewhat to normal, they increasingly turned to corporate defense, regulatory issues, a variety of public health care campaigns (with a emphasis on mental health) and a heavy complement of trial and appellate work. In 1999 they took their book of business and — with fellow Eckert Seamans defector Stephen Burr in tow to make rain on the corporate side — opened the Boston office of Miami’s Greenberg Traurig. (Eckert Seamans partners declined to comment on either MacLeish’s days with the firm or his departure.) Today the Greenberg branch has more than 30 lawyers. And MacLeish and Sherman are once again nailing a bill of particulars on the cathedral’s door. This time, MacLeish and Sherman are media heroes, taking on a hidebound hierarchy that has been its own worst enemy. Also, the partners have been able to call upon a dozen attorneys firmwide for a clergy abuse caseload that now has nearly 200 plaintiffs. Most of the suits name Cardinal Bernard Law as defendant. “Greenberg,” says MacLeish, “has provided us with tremendous support.” Adds Sherman: “And, remember, we’re not typical, hard-bitten, commercial Greenberg lawyers.” Perhaps not. But the duo certainly seems likely to become a profit center, with settlements that might well reach eight or nine figures. Along the way, their crusade has earned Greenberg the kind of publicity that marketing managers can only dream about. But the partners, and Greenberg CEO Cesar Alvarez, still worry openly about being perceived as church-bashers. Alvarez is a devout Catholic whose mother was reared by nuns in a Cuban orphanage. “When Eric and Bob came to me with these cases,” he recalls, “I think it was a benefit that I was a Catholic, because I understand the difference between the faith and the men who are part of the faith. Men make mistakes, they can be corrupted, they can be criminal. The church would ultimately be better off by being rid of this.” THE TURNING POINT The turning point came in April. During a pair of extraordinary press conferences, MacLeish unveiled 1,600 pages of internal church correspondence that put the situation in sadly stark relief. With his client Gregory Ford, now 24, at his side, MacLeish used the documents to show how Law and other top church officials apparently protected the Rev. Paul Shanley, a former Boston-area priest, despite repeated accusations of child molestation. The story had shifted from isolated creepiness to coordinated cover-up. And the lawyers in hot pursuit were now widely seen as the good guys. They make an odd pair. MacLeish, 49, is very much to the manner born. He is the son of a famous former television commentator of the same name (Eric is short for Roderick) and grandnephew of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald (who, literary critics may not know, graduated first in his Harvard Law School class of 1919). MacLeish readily acknowledges that his family history challenged his self-esteem. He admits to bitterness about being shipped off to boarding school at a young age — where he says he successfully fought off would-be abusers himself and was regularly caned. Yet he also projects a sense of self-contentment and an intensity that is one part hard-edged, one part positively bubbly. Although he worries openly about the effect of all the recent developments on the church’s “good works,” his eyes narrow when speaking of his quarry. Then again, the hard features melt into an easy smile when he talks of his wife and two young daughters. Indeed, interrupting a conversation on a late April day, he dashes out of the office to catch a daughter’s softball game — or as much of it as he can before having to return for an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Bob Sherman, 48, claims no patrician pedigree. His parents, both now in their 90s, fled Russian Cossacks and pogroms to become the stuff of immigration legend. Without benefit of a college degree, Sherman’s father, Sam, put himself through law school and became a solo practitioner in the hardscrabble town of Brockton, outside Boston. (He retired just last year, at 91, having spent the final 11 years of his career taking only court-appointed cases.) Despite his father’s ascent, when Bob finished his undergraduate work at the University of Rochester and arrived at Boston University’s law school in 1975, it was a big step up the legal ladder. A four-time Boston marathoner who has pursued a variety of charitable works — as has his partner — Sherman is currently separated and laments that “any outside time” that he can pry out of his current workload (not much) is devoted to his teen-age son and daughter. He’s more relaxed than MacLeish, though on this day — as he frenetically alternates between fielding reporters’ phone calls and vetting client intake sheets with a quartet of paralegals — he leans into his desk as if trying to push it up a hill. The future partners’ disparate life tracks first crossed at B.U. His days of academic rebellion behind him, MacLeish excelled, became an editor on the law review, and graduated near the top of his class. “A lot of the folks at B.U. were all depressed,” he says. “They were going there because they didn’t get into Harvard. But I was just happy to get in.” First day, first class: MacLeish and Sherman found themselves sitting next to each other. “We became friends instantly,” recalls Sherman. “I’d go home to see my parents on Sunday nights, and Eric would often come along. When there were baseball tickets, we did that, too. My family was very close. Eric’s family path had been very different. My parents are very fond of him, and vice versa.” Their shared past is palpable. The pair laughs (or winces) at each other’s jokes. They finish each other’s sentences. PREPARATION AND PARALEGALS A klieg-lit case, like any other, is won in preparation. While MacLeish heads for the softball field, Sherman slogs through a few days’ worth of plaintiff petitions. Over the course of two hours, four paralegals recite dozens of new horror stories, each seemingly ghastlier than its predecessor. Variously squinting and shaking his head, Sherman slots each complainant for rejection, referral or conference. “That sounds like one of our dirty dozen,” he says, responding to one former altar boy’s account of his abuser. Sherman explains that most of the perpetrators have “patterns and practices” of abuse, which can aid in vetting the truthfulness of accusers. “What’s your instinct on her story?” he asks, after hearing one incredibly horrid narrative that included “beatings and digital penetration.” “She’s a little off,” replies the paralegal (this one a social worker whom the firm has brought on board), “but the story still has a ring to it.” “Let’s have her in.” Once in, Sherman explains, the complainants meet with at least one firm-retained forensic psychologist. They are also often asked to take a polygraph exam. Intermittently throughout the intake process, Sherman is called into the hallway. During one such hiatus, the paralegals compare notes — and their own reactions. The social worker shrugs and says that “this kind of sadness” comes with her territory. Another cites her “criminal justice background” to explain why the savagery has left her relatively unfazed. But a third, looking as if she’s swallowed something sharp, confesses that she has been having trouble erasing it all at the end of her workday. “We’re completely dependent on the paralegals,” Sherman says later. “We are so inundated, particularly after the press conferences, that we’d be lost — I mean really lost — without them.” INFORMAL CLERGY ABUSE BAR It’s the difference that a big firm can make. Most of those bringing clergy abuse cases, in Boston and nationwide, have been solos or small shops. Jeffrey Newman and Mitchell Garabedian in Massachusetts, Stephen Rubino in New Jersey, Jeffrey Anderson in Minnesota and a handful of others round out the informal clergy abuse bar. “MacLeish has always been the only big-firm lawyer involved in this stuff,” says Mark Chopko, who has litigated or overseen litigation as general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for nearly 20 years. Sherman is quick to note that he and his partner are often willing to refer a complainant to one of the independents “if the case isn’t in a state where Greenberg has an office or if they’re just not right for us.” The lawyers involved, however, do not present a united front. A few years ago, when Rubino sued a Catholic leader from Chicago whom MacLeish and Sherman had previously dealt with and decided was a “leader for reform,” MacLeish called and importuned him with a request that he withdraw the suit. “It wasn’t a pleasant phone call,” says MacLeish. “I told him he better have his facts in order on that one. I said this was gonna set the whole thing back, and it did.” The plaintiff later voluntarily dismissed the suit. Rubino says he has no recollection of the MacLeish calls, saying only, “The church uses the Bernadin case to try to cast doubt on many others, which is unfortunate.” Same goes for suits recently filed by Anderson against a collection of dioceses under the ever-elastic Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act. “It’s an overreach,” says MacLeish. “We haven’t seen any evidence of an organized conspiracy at the top of the nation’s church.” Anderson, who has successfully brought RICO actions in the past, has vigorously defended both the measure’s applicability to many clergy abuse cover-ups and his eventual prospects for prevailing with these most recent filings. But Sherman objects: “A broad-based, scattergun attack on the church itself would be a disservice to the good works the institution provides. Of course, as lawyers, we’re driven by the facts, so if they lead us there, we’d have to consider it. But they haven’t yet.” MacLeish and Sherman have come in for at least one persistent criticism themselves: trial by press conference. “Personally, I wouldn’t do it; it wouldn’t be my litigation strategy to try something in the press first,” says Chopko, the bishops’ counsel. “But look at tobacco and asbestos: The litigation strategy is coupled with a public relations, public policy approach. It’s not unexpected in the current litigation environment — either to show their bona fides or soften up the jury pool. So they paint the leadership as criminal or incompetent — or both — by trying it in the press.” MacLeish parries, “Look, with these press conferences and interviews, I’m not a talking head. I’m a trial lawyer. I’m doing this at the behest of my client.” MacLeish is referring to the case of Greg Ford, who filed suit against Cardinal Law for failing to address Ford’s alleged abuse at the hands of Father Shanley. Arrested in May on child rape charges, Shanley had already become one of the most prominently vilified among accused priests, due to his reportedly fervent proselytization for “man-boy love.” His reassignment during the 1990s to sensitive posts by church leaders, who apparently knew of his active support of pedophilia, became one of the fiercest firestorms as the broader tales of cover-up materialized. (Archdiocese attorney Wilson Rogers Jr. declined to return repeated calls seeking comment.) Greg’s father, Rodney Ford, a Boston College police officer, makes no apologies for encouraging MacLeish to lead a public charge. “Clinicians had told us for years that Greg seemed to be a classic abuse victim. But he’d suppressed it. The only way we even found out what happened to Greg, the missing piece to the puzzle, was after stories became public earlier this year,” he says. “The publicity is an important part of setting things right.” That media frenzy, however, is cause for concern even among church supporters who concede some level of institutional wrongdoing. Patrick Schiltz, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., is a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and an ex-partner at Minneapolis’ Faegre & Benson who has defended churches in abuse cases in more than 40 states. Observing that many archdioceses’ insurance policies are tapped out or insufficient to cover the potential liabilities that are emerging, he warns of bankruptcies. Bishops’ counsel Chopko notes that the country’s 194 dioceses are legally autonomous entities, reducing the likelihood of cross-jurisdictional exposure, but even his conservative estimate of payouts by the church during the past two decades comes to more than $300 million. VICTIM COMPENSATION FUND Although most archdioceses remain solvent, holding significant hard assets, their general lack of liquidity has combined with amateurish financial management and ambitious social service agendas to leave many with chronic operating deficits. Toss in the prospect of new multimillion-dollar liabilities, where caps on charities’ exposure are likely inapplicable because the infractions didn’t occur as part of the charitable missions. Last, add a growing antipathy to the church among some lay donors. Things can look pretty grim, pretty quickly. “This isn’t IBM where you write down a fourth-quarter loss,” says Schiltz. “And the greatest exposure isn’t for the leadership. It’s for the parochial school kids in poor neighborhoods or the indigent hospital patients or the homeless person counting on a soup kitchen.” A plaintive Schiltz wonders: “Who knows where it’ll stop?” One possible answer to Schiltz’s question lies in the novel response to the Sept. 11 attacks: a victims’ restitution fund that starves the mass tort behemoth of its fuel. That way could lie legal peace with honor. Asked about the idea, Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, endorses it wholeheartedly. “The church could provide a corpus of funds — from insurance and other sources — to be negotiated with representative plaintiffs’ counsel,” he says. “You would then make it available to all claimants who are eligible and who would forgo litigation. The church would get certainty. For plaintiffs, it would protect them against the prospect of the church running out of money, and they would receive psychological closure.” Sherman likes the idea, if it includes reforms of the abuse reporting structure. Rubino says it might work, assuming “good faith, transparency and adequate funding.” Schiltz likes the idea, too. Chopko reminds that the church is not the unified corporate structure that it is widely presumed to be, and suggests that 194 such funds “might be closer to what’s needed.” But he concedes that the notion might well offer a path out of the thicket. Unlike the twin towers fund, of course, defining eligibility would likely require detailed fact-finding, which is one reason MacLeish doubts the model. “But the representatives designing the system could develop criteria for eligibility that would prevent fraud and exorbitant amounts going to unworthy plaintiffs,” says Feinberg. “You could provide the administrator a comfort level that bald, fraudulent claims are not compensable.” Sherman, who is more enthusiastic than his partner, adds that the accuracy of screening might be increased once the church “opens its files” so that perpetrators’ patterns could be compared against complaints. Whether the church could ever achieve such consensus is unclear, at best. In early May, a nearly final settlement of suits brought against the diocese in the case of one serially offending priest, John Geoghan, unraveled at the last minute, when the diocese’s financial board abruptly forbade Cardinal Law from signing off on the deal. The church’s subsequent offer to create a fund along the lines of Sept. 11 was deemed too small by most plaintiffs’ advocates (including MacLeish) and offered little by way of systemic reform. But the need for some such bold stroke from the institution has become critical. The dimensions of the overall scandal — both sociological and financial — have expanded with each passing day. A settlement, soon, would seem to be in the interest of almost all concerned. MacLeish, who started a charitable Sept. 11 fund for the many Massachusetts residents who lost family members in the attack, favors some form of mediation with the church, even if he’s skeptical of applying the Feinberg model. Asked whether he’d champion a fund or mediation even if it meant an end to the fees, Sherman’s response is immediate: “Fine by me.”

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