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Church in Crisis

Lawyer struggles with his church’s seamy side

Los Angeles

Few in the Catholic hierarchy probably feel much sympathy for a Catholic lawyer suing them in a molestation case. But that doesn’t mean the Catholic lawyer’s religious life and training isn’t being personally pummeled when he pushes into the mire that is the Catholic church’s sexual mess.

In Costa Mesa, Calif., 39-year-old John Manly -- educated at Catholic institutions -- has “close to 30” sexual abuse cases against the church in California on his personal docket at the law firm of Manly & McGuire. He won’t send his young children to Catholic schools nor let them be altar servers when they reach that age.

“Sorry,” he said, obviously uncomfortable.

He’s been uncomfortable for seven years, looking at the seamy side of the church.

In the 1990s, as today, the bulk of Manly’s practice is representing litigants in commercial real estate suits. He had some general practice. But neither he nor his then-partner, also a Catholic, were prepared for what happened in 1995 when two parents brought to Manly’s office their son who told of his abuse by a Catholic high school principal.

“To be honest with you,” said Manly, “I believed the hierarchy, and I believed the [Cardinal Joseph] Bernardin thing as an example of false allegations. I believed there was something to [the pedophilia crisis] but very small.

“My clients basically wanted to get their son [Ryan DiMaria] enough money for psychological counseling and help him get a start in life,” he said. “The son had just graduated from college, and they asked to meet first with [Orange County Bishop Norman McFarland] and asked him for $150,000.”

The diocese, said Manly, “told them to basically go fly a kite, but less polite than that. So we sued. Four and a half years later my clients settled for millions of dollars.”

In fact, $5.2 million -- plus new mandatory sex abuse guidelines, including a zero-tolerance policy the Los Angeles archdiocese had to set, in the judge’s words, “in concrete.” The Orange County diocese is related to the Los Angeles archdiocese as a suffragan diocese.

Manly, who attended a military school run by the Dominicans, then Mater Dei High School, and the University of San Diego, said the “fabulous education I got as a Catholic” hadn’t prepared him for “taking depositions from bishops and chancellors. You have the truth staring you in the face in the documents, and they basically look at you and deny. It really radically reforms your view of the hierarchy.”

The denial, he believes, is at the core of the “legal reality the American bishops have single-handedly exposed themselves to -- hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, in liability through 30 or 40 years of basically screwing over the faithful.

“I’m sick of the crocodile tears,” said Manly. “I was in the Navy Reserve, and when a ship runs aground, the captain goes. And you know what? The captains haven’t left. The American bishops and their organization who perpetrated this, the ones who knew about this before anybody else did, who put the scheme in place to cover it up, and who did nothing about it when they could have, I hold them personally responsible.

“The truth is,” he said, “there’s thousands of kids and adults walking around this country that don’t have their faith. They are emotionally gutted and are going to be emotionally ruined for the rest of their lives. The people to blame? Sorry, but they’re wearing the red hats in this country.”

Manly sees the issue in terms of the cover-ups, the victims, the perpetrators, and the other sufferers. “What’s interesting about people that have really been victimized is they tend to understate what has happened to them. I’m certainly not a paragon of virtue. I’ve done things in my life -- I’m like everybody else. I’m a human being. But the only emotion I can describe,” when contemplating the victims, he said, “is pure empathy.”

The perpetrators he sees linked to “a crisis of faith. Look at the reports of the perpetrators from institutions like St. Luke’s Institute and the Servants of the Paraclete. Typically,” said Manly, “they do a spiritual evaluation, a physical evaluation, a psychological evaluation. All of [the perpetrators] have one thing in common -- a spiritual life that is absolutely vapid,” he said.

“You know,” he continued, “Jesus is supposed to be the center of our lives as Catholics. That’s what we believe, and the Eucharist is there. I think what’s happened in our church is -- and this is a very complicated issue and I don’t propose to know the solution to it -- but it occurs to me that if [as a priest] Christ stops being the center of your life, and the center of your life begins to be, you know, what’s my collection on Sunday and where’s my next posting, and your prayer life goes to hell in a hand basket, it’s a prescription for trouble.”

Manly, who does not come across as a man normally lost for words, hesitated as he searched for the phrases to make his point. “Fundamentally,” he said, “in the call to celibacy and the sacrament of holy orders, you have to have a prayer life. You can’t do it any other way. It’s support [whether] trying to be celibate as an unmarried single person or staying faithful in a marriage. I think you have to have a prayer life or it’s very, very challenging. Some people are more challenged than others.”

Manly said that in addition to the victims, those suffering as a result of the scandal include “the faithful priests, very silent, can’t talk, can’t speak for themselves except through groups like Voice of the Faithful. They’d like to say something but have nowhere to go.

“If you’re a 55-year-old man and this is what you’ve done your whole life, you know if you say word one, you’re done,” said Manly. “Your career is finished.”

The other sufferers “are people like my mother and Catholics who go to Mass, go to Communion every day. No one talks about their simple faith and what happens to them. What has it done to them spiritually?” he asked.

The church’s credibility, “on any issue, be it spiritual, moral, political,” has also suffered. The church, he said, is “unable to speak with any credibility because you know they’ve compromised themselves on this.”

“If 40 years ago I wanted to plan the perfect public relations virus to destroy the American priesthood, that’s my goal, and I’m clinical about it, I’ve got to tell you I can’t think of anything better than the systemic child abuse,” Manly said. “I’m sickened by it. The church in America has gone from Bishop [Fulton] Sheen on television in ’50s, an American bishop, to this.”

Asked if the current lawsuits mean that in five or 10 years all pedophile priests will be gone from the church, Manly replied, “No, I don’t think so. And I think that sexual abuse goes beyond pedophilia. There’s abuse, systematic abuse of seminarians, in certain seminaries and -- Richard Sipe has talked about this a lot -- there’s a sexual culture in the priesthood that they just haven’t addressed.” Sipe, a former priest, has done extensive research on priests and sexual abuse.

It’s not true in all dioceses, he said, but appears true in some that “if you’re not part of the sexual culture, you don’t get promoted, you don’t get choice assignments and you’re stuck in an outland posting. No one can talk about it because the consequences for that person and their vocation are catastrophic. That’s my opinion.

“It just gets bigger,” he said. “As Boston got bigger -- our settlement in California preceded Boston -- we got a lot of phone calls. Whenever I file a claim, do an interview, write an op-ed piece, I get more calls. I don’t take every case.”

In January, California lifts its statute of limitations for a year on suing employers of known molesters, and an estimated 200 cases are expected. “You’re going to see, you’ve already seen, a lot of poor-mouth talk by dioceses. You know, ‘I built my $200 million cathedral and now I have no money,’ ” he said, in a reference to the new cathedral in Los Angeles. “My message to them is good luck. I don’t think anybody really believes that. And if it means that dioceses go bankrupt, so be it. That’s my view. It’s tragic that it has to come to this because no one, no one has addressed why this is happening, figured out why it occurred. Until you address that, it’s not going to stop.”

Referring to the November U.S. bishops’ meeting, he said, “Basically, the message was: ‘This is what we say. This message will shut them up.’ I don’t think the faithful are going to shut up.”

Meanwhile, on Sundays, the six Manlys -- like millions of other Catholics nationwide -- go to their local parish. And on Mondays, John Manly re-opens the files and returns to the church’s grime and crimes.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002