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Orange County

He Got Justice, Now Wants to Give It

A sexual abuse victim who came to believe in the legal system is sworn in as an attorney.

June 05, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County victim of sexual abuse who came to believe in the power of the justice system after his civil suit against the Roman Catholic Church resulted in a $5.2-million settlement and a series of reforms in 2001 was sworn in Wednesday as an attorney.

Before family and colleagues, Ryan DiMaria, 29, took the oath in the courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, who mediated the settlement between DiMaria and the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles.

"After all he's gone through, I think it's amazing," said J. Yvonne Hyatt, the judge's clerk, as she watched the ceremony.

DiMaria said he will specialize in helping other molestation victims, something he has done as a law clerk for the last four months. He works in the Costa Mesa offices of John Manly, one of the lawyers who represented him in his sexual abuse suit.

As a plaintiff, DiMaria insisted his settlement with the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses include reforms, such as a zero-tolerance policy, victims' hot lines and abuse awareness programs in parochial schools -- now standard practices.

"I'm really grateful for what my attorneys did for me in my case," said DiMaria, who also was represented by Katherine K. Freberg of Irvine. "My fate was in their hands. It made me want to work on these kinds of cases and do the same for other people."

It's experience that is appreciated by victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"He's not just a lawyer trying to get money," said one client who alleges in a lawsuit filed this week that he had been molested by a former Orange County priest. "He's a lawyer trying to make things right. He has a cause. He's been through it. He understands."

Manly said he hired DiMaria a year ago as a clerk because of his expertise in real estate. DiMaria had sold mobile home parks before switching to law. Six months into the job, Manly said, DiMaria walked into his office, closed the door and asked to work with more than 50 of the firm's clients who allege they were molested by priests.

"I don't ask anybody to work on these cases because they're so hard emotionally," Manly said. "They have to volunteer."

In 1997, DiMaria filed suit against the two dioceses and Michael A. Harris, then a monsignor who had been a popular principal at two Orange County Catholic high schools, Mater Dei and Santa Margarita.

DiMaria alleged that he was molested twice in 1991 by Harris, a priest whose charismatic style earned him the nickname "Father Hollywood." The other alleged victims of Harris testified to bolster DiMaria's claims, although they weren't parties in the lawsuit.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was named in the lawsuit because DiMaria contended that archdiocesan officials knew of earlier molestation allegations against Harris dating to the 1970s but did nothing. The archdiocese has denied prior knowledge.

Harris, who was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican, has denied the allegations and accused church officials of settling the case for "their own business reasons."

DiMaria, who graduated from Chapman University School of Law in Orange in 2001, failed the state bar exam the first time after trying to prepare for it and his civil trial simultaneously. He didn't pass the next two times, saying it had become more difficult the longer he was out of law school. On his fourth try, he succeeded.

DiMaria married nine months ago and will become a father in August. Becoming a lawyer is another step in reclaiming his life, DiMaria said. At its nadir, he contemplated suicide. "Some days I was just trying to stay alive," DiMaria said.

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