Church paid legal fees for priests
by Tom Mashberg
Monday, May 13, 2002
The Archdiocese of Boston has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for priests accused of sex abuse, frequently granting unsecured loans to the penniless alleged molesters, according to church documents and lawyers familiar with the practice.
On many occasions, the accused priests have subsequently retained counsel who have discussed cases with archdiocesan officials and cooperated with church attorneys.
``It's fair to ask why any organization would represent and pay for the defense costs of an individual unless there was something to be gained by that,'' said attorney Steven Sharaf of Newton, an insurance defense litigation specialist. ``There is a conflict there.''
Papers in the John J. Geoghan scandal, for example, show that the imprisoned and defrocked pedophile regularly forwarded legal bills in the tens of thousands of dollars to the archdiocese for payment. In May 1997, he thanked the church in a scrawled missive for its ``financial assistance'' for covering a bill of $36,636.50 from the Hub law firm of Hanify & King.
And documents in the Rev. Paul R. Shanley abuse case indicate that Shanley's legal bills from the early 1990s on were paid by The Clergy Assistance Trust, a nominally independent fund overseen by high-ranking archdiocesan officials.
In exchange, Shanley signed numerous unsecured notes issued to him by Monsignor William F. Murphy, former moderator of the curia under Bernard Cardinal Law.
``I am happy to send you a check for the amount of $833.73 in partial payment for your legal fees . . .,'' Murphy wrote to Shanley in April 1995, at a time when the now-notorious Newton cleric was dogged by civil litigation, ``which you will pay back if you are ever able.''
Jeffrey A. Newman, attorney for more than 100 plaintiffs suing the church and accused priests, said his analysis of separate church documents obtained via subpoena show that since 1990, the archdiocese has used the fund to cover legal costs for nearly 100 priests.
Newman has not yet publicly released the documents. But he indicated that among the priests who received the legal fees are numerous accused molesters like Shanley, Geoghan, and the Revs. Ronald H. Paquin and Paul J. Mahan.
``Scores of priests have clearly tapped into this fund since its inception, and the list includes many rampant pedophiles,'' he said. ``We are talking of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and likely millions by the time this explostion of litigations is all over - a situation that is inherently conflicting.''
According to one document obtained from the church, the Clergy Assistance Trust is ``administered by the archdiocese . . . for priests who have need for legal assistance because of various allegations,'' and is funded by ``a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.''
The document goes on: ``It is important that we establish an arm's length basis'' for each loan, and asks the priest to pledge real estates, if they have it, as security.
Newman called that set-up ``a sham.'' He said lawyers for the priests he is suing have employed the same strategies of the archdiocese's counsel in court pleadings, including using a First Amendment defense against release of internal personnel files. He suggested the strategy was coordinated.
``If a corporation set up `separate' entities to pay for legal defenses without total neutrality of interest it would not fly,'' he said.
Carmen L. Durso, another plaintiffs' lawyers, added: ``Why is the archdiocese paying for the defense of all these priests and saying it has no money to pay the victims?''
Durso said the fact that the accused priests are beholden to the church for legal fees could inhibit them from testifying against the archdiocese in cases where the cleric and church are being sued.
``There are ethical problems if the church was to dictate a legal defense to lawyers for a cleric like Shanley,'' he said. ``For him to let someone else tell him how his civil defense should be handled raises an impermissible conflict.''
In the Shanley papers there are notes of 1993 conversations about allegations against him between attorney Timothy P. O'Neill of Hanify & King and Bishop John J. McCormack, Law's former personnel minister at the chancery and now bishop of Manchester, N.H.
The notes suggest O'Neill indicated to McCormack that Shanley ``doesn't dispute the substance'' of allegations against him.
There is also a series of bills from O'Neill to Shanley for legal fees that began in 1992 and stretch into at least 1998. The documents show that each time Shanley received a bill from O'Neill, he forwarded it to the chancery, then received an unsecured loan from the church for that exact amount.
One sequence typical of many shows a 1995 invoice to Shanley from O'Neill for $833.73, followed by an internal church memo from Rev. Brian M. Flatley to Bishop Murphy reading: ``Enclosed is a statement from Hanify & King, which Father Shanley forwarded to me. May I request it be paid out of the Clergy Assistance Trust.''
Next comes a promissory note issued to Shanley for the amount of the legal bill, as well as a personal check for that amount, both attached to a letter from Murphy saying ``to insure the clarity in this'' Shanley must sign the note.
In one letter to Flatley in 1995, Shanley makes plain that O'Neill, acting as his counsel, has discussed Shanley's legal strategy on civil suits with the archdiocese. He adds: ``I am enclosing a bill from Hanify & King. . . . I am overwhelmed with remorse at the seemingly ceaseless expense that I have become to the archdiocese.''
By June 1998, O'Neill was sending his bills directly to Murphy.
O'Neill, a respected Boston defense lawyer, has put in appearances in court in recent weeks to represent two other priests facing suits: suspended Monsignor Frederick J. Ryan and Rev. Jon C. Martin. Martin is being sued with the archdiocese for negligence in the Christopher R. Reardon Catholic youth worker serial abuse case.
In a brief interview recently, O'Neill said he represented the individual priests, not the church.
The archdiocese said yesterday it would look into the matter before issuing a formal response.nullCarmen L. Durso, another plaintiffs' lawyers, added: ``Why is the archdiocese paying for the defense of all these priests and saying it has no money to pay the victims?''