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An attorney’s right or obligation to publicly advocate for his clients, and to make protected allegations within the confines of a lawsuit, is in sharp focus in an ethics complaint lodged against a plaintiffs’ lawyer at the center of the clergy abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, N.Y. John A. Aretakis, who practices out of Manhattan and also in the Albany area, is under investigation by the Disciplinary Committee of the First Judicial Department based on the complaint of a nun. Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Aretakis, takes issue primarily with questions the lawyer and his client raise about her qualifications to counsel abuse victims. But Aretakis, who provided the media with Sister Smollin’s complaint and his response, portrays the ethics charge as the latest in a series of attempts by the diocese to intimidate him and victims of clergy abuse. The continuing battle between Aretakis and the local church hierarchy has seemingly taken on a life of its own, distinct from the several lawsuits he has brought alleging various instances of sexual and psychological abuse. Aretakis, who was representing alleged victims of clergy abuse years before the national church scandal broke, is a particularly aggressive and media-savvy advocate who has used publicity and the threat of it in demanding settlements. Church officials have repeatedly questioned Aretakis’ professional ethics, while Aretakis, a solo practitioner, has repeatedly suggested that the diocese and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard are attempting to stifle litigation by stifling the litigator. The latest salvo stems from a press conference Aretakis allegedly held in an Albany hotel on April 28. At that event, Aretakis released an affidavit by a client alleging that the client was manipulated by the church, largely through Sister Smollin, a counselor. It questioned the nun’s qualifications as a counselor, challenged her psychiatric credentials and suggested her loyalties remained with the bishop and the diocese rather than with victims who considered themselves her patients. Local media reported the story, and a local TV station also claimed Sister Smollin was engaged in a lesbian relationship. The insinuation of homosexuality apparently was rooted in another affidavit, in which one of Aretakis’ clients indicated that Sister Smollin shared confidences of her personal life. A few days later, the station retracted the statement about Sister Smollin’s sexuality, admitting on the air that the characterization was “unwarranted and unsupported by the allegations in the case.” LAWYER BLAMED Sister Smollin responded with a complaint against Aretakis, blaming him for the remark on the supposed lesbian alliance and accusing him of wrongly casting doubt on her professional pedigree. In May, Sister Smollin filed an ethics complaint with the New York 3rd Department’s Committee on Professional Standards, which referred it to the 1st Department’s Disciplinary Committee. “I believe Aretakis has violated the ethical norms governing attorney conduct,” Sister Smollin, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, said in her complaint. “Aretakis has maligned my name and publicly humiliated me. His slanderous reports of me have had a destructive effect on my professional life. His comments demean my personal integrity. His unethical behavior has not only had a negative effect on myself but on all religious.” Aretakis’ response was faxed on Tuesday to Naomi F. Goldstein of the 1st Department’s Disciplinary Committee. In that letter, Aretakis accuses Bishop Hubbard and other church officials of repeatedly misleading the public about prior and ongoing abuse allegations. He also accuses the bishop of using “surrogates to make threats and/or complaints of ethical improprieties against me,” acting through others to “keep his fingerprints off these vicious and very malicious acts.” Aretakis contends the diocese has persistently exploited the disciplinary process, and that the nun’s complaint is part of that pattern. “The bishop believes that using the threat against my license will suppress me and/or victims from coming forward or going public with their horrific stories that are so widespread in the Diocese of Albany,” Aretakis said in the letter. Further, Aretakis asserts a First Amendment right to advocate for his clients. He continues to allege that Sister Smollin is not a New York state-licensed psychologist, and that her counseling of alleged abuse victims was inappropriate and improper. And since she is associated with the diocese, there is a clear conflict of interest on her part, Aretakis claims. Diocesan spokesman Kenneth Goldfarb said the diocese is aware of Sister Smollin’s complaint against Aretakis, and stressed that “the diocese itself has not filed a complaint at this time.” Attorney statements are governed by Disciplinary Rule 7-102, which states that in representing a client, a lawyer may not “knowingly make a false statement of law or fact.” The confidentiality of attorney disciplinary complaints is governed by the New York Court of Appeals’ 1983 holding in Matter of Capoccia, 59 NY2d 549. In that case, the court said that since the confidentiality rules are designed to protect the accused attorney, the attorney can waive that privilege and request a pubic airing of a complaint.

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