Sex, God & Greed

By Daniel Lyons
June 9, 2003

Pedophile priests have sparked a litigation gold rush. The Boy Scouts, day care firms and Hollywood may be next.

Asbestos, tobacco, guns, lead paint. What's the next jackpot for tort lawyers? It could be sex.

The focal point of this tort battle is the Catholic Church. The Church's legal problems are worse even than most people realize: $1 billion in damages already paid out for the victims of pedophile priests, indications that the total will approach $5 billion before the crisis is over. But this wave of litigation does not end here. Is there any reason to think that the priesthood has a monopoly on child molestation? The lawyers who are winning settlements from Catholic dioceses are already casting about for the next targets: schools, government agencies, day care centers, police departments, Indian reservations, Hollywood. Plaintiff lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. and other litigators have parlayed the priest crisis into a billion-dollar money machine, fueled by lethal legal tactics, shrewd use of the media and public outrage so fierce that almost any claim, no matter how bizarre or dated, offers a shot at a windfall.

The lawyers are lobbying states to lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, letting them dredge up complaints that date back decades. Last year California, responding to the outcry over the rash of priest cases, suspended its statute of limitations on child sex abuse crimes for one year, opening the way for a deluge of new claims. A dozen other states are being pushed to loosen their laws.

"There is an absolute explosion of sexual abuse litigation, and there will continue to be. This is going to be a huge business," MacLeish, age 50, says. A Boston-based partner of the Miami law firm of Greenberg Traurig (2002 billings: $465 million), he has won upwards of $30 million in settlements for more than a hundred plaintiffs in lawsuits in the past decade. With a hit man's style and a gift for TV sound bites, he has played a key role in unearthing (and exploiting) the priest scandals of the past two years, prompting a nationwide cascade of similar reports.

In the resulting wave of lawsuits the majority of cases are legitimate, even officials of the Catholic Church concur. Dioceses will pay dearly for covering up the most abominable crimes and failing to prevent future offenses.

Overdue justice. But it could lead to a legal morass marked by extortion as much as fairness, in which a small cast of liars cashes in on the real suffering of victims. "Just think how this ripples out: day care, babysitters, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, summer camps, study-abroad programs. You start thinking about it, and it boggles the mind," says Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minn. "There is impact in the tens of billions of dollars."

For Roderick (Eric) MacLeish, sex litigation is a big business. MacLeish says he represents 240 people bringing abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. His most celebrated current case also is his most dubious one: three young men who tell lurid tales of being viciously and repeatedly assaulted in the 1980s by the Rev. Paul R. Shanley. Shanley, 72, has denied the charges but declines further comment. He makes an easy target: In 1994 the archdiocese paid out settlements to an undisclosed number of people, including two clients represented by MacLeish, who said Shanley had molested them when they were teenagers. As part of the settlement Shanley had to be removed from ministry while he got treatment.

There's just one problem: MacLeish's three new clients were friends and former classmates, and all three claim they had blocked out all memory of these brutal anal rapes for more than a decade--what some psychologists call "repressed memory."Is it possible that the very notion is bunk? (See box, p. 72.)

Moreover, MacLeish's client, Gregory Ford, 25, of Newton, Mass., has spent time in 17 mental institutions and halfway houses and is on antipsychotic medication and unable to work, his parents say. In the past he has threatened to kill his father. Archdiocese lawyers believe Greg may previously have said he was molested by his father and a cousin; his parents deny it. Yet a Massachusetts Superior Court judge has allowed this case to proceed, which attests to MacLeish's considerable skills in court and in front of news cameras. "These are strong cases, and we are pushing them to trial," MacLeish insists. "We are going to pound and pound and pound."


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