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THE NATION

Priest Sex Scandal Is Big Business for N.J. Attorney

Justice: Representing victims in abuse cases is a grueling but now lucrative niche.

April 07, 2002|JOHN CURRAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MARGATE, N.J. — "God gives only very special people the opportunity to do these things with a priest," some were told by their molesters.

"It is the most significant honor a lay person could have, to make love to a priest," others were told.

"You can't tell. Nobody would ever believe you anyway."

Now they are telling. And business is booming for lawyer Stephen Rubino, who is sometimes moved to tears by the stories of childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of priests.

Rubino, 52, one of the few lawyers specializing in priest sex abuse cases, has represented about 250 victims, earning a reputation for tenacity in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia.

"They want acknowledgment. They want the perpetrator to admit it and be held accountable. Their anger is being driven by the stories they're hearing of the church ignoring the warning signs given to them by predators," Rubino said.

Every day, more alleged victims come forward. His office fields 10 to 15 e-mail messages or telephone calls daily from would-be clients.

Some are teenagers. Some are in their 70s. They say they were molested as children and are only now speaking up.

"He's a great lawyer, but this isn't about being a great lawyer. It's about being an advocate for change," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., a lawyer active in priest sex abuse cases. "In the end, that's all our clients want and that's what we're working toward."

A Roman Catholic, Rubino attended parochial schools and up until 1987 handled primarily environmental class-action suits and civil rights cases.

Then one summer day on the beach, a friend of his wife's approached him with a tale of sexual abuse a 12-year-old relative had suffered at the hands of a priest.

The acts were so horrific, Rubino initially did not believe they happened. He took the case, the priest was convicted and jailed, the victim received a $700,000 settlement and Rubino had a new career.

Since then, he has won settlements ranging from $35,000 to more than $1 million. In every case, the victims first approached the church to seek redress and were turned away, he said.

"I don't enjoy it, but there's no way to leave it. I wouldn't mind if someone else was doing it," Rubino said. "But it must be done. This behavior has to be exposed."

Justice does not always come quickly. Rubino is working on a case in nearby Atlantic City that was originally filed in 1994.

"Abuse survivors are tough clients," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims group.

"We are wounded, hurting, distrustful, sometimes impatient people. It's one thing to wait for a lawyer to finish a will or a probate matter so you can get the money. It's totally different to wait for a lawyer to help you put your life back together, because the emotional stakes are very, very high."

The church's legal strategies in fighting victims' claims typically center on the statute of limitations or the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

Rubino said the church will not begin to heal until its leaders apologize in person to victims and listen to their stories.

"Apologies don't count from the pulpit. They don't count from a spokesperson, they don't count from a press release. They only count in person," he said. "I learned that in first grade, from Sister Mary Adele."

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