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Lawyers Seek To Curb Church Attorneys At Depositions

May 30, 2002 | The Boston Herald

Lawyers looking to depose key Boston archdiocese figures in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal want the judges overseeing their lawsuits to stop church attorneys from ``obstructing'' their efforts to interrogate defendants under oath.

In an emergency motion filed under seal Tuesday, attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. asked Middlesex Superior Court Judge Raymond J. Brassard to issue a protective order and impose sanctions on church counsel for ``wildly inappropriate conduct'' during the vital sworn questioning sessions.

MacLeish says church lawyers violated clear rules of conduct by engaging in ``speaking objections'' and says they ``improperly stopped the deposition and coached the witness.''

The motion comes in advance of a series of crucial depositions of ranking church figures, and points up the increasingly high stakes for the archdiocese, which faces suits on multiple fronts and has been ordered to release personnel documents on 11 more priests by tomorrow.

Earlier this month, attorney Mitchell Garabedian deposed Bernard Cardinal Law over two days. He expects to depose the archdiocese chancellor, David W. Smith, and a former personnel official, Bishop Robert J. Banks, now of Green Bay, Wis., before the end of next week.

MacLeish is scheduled to depose Law next Wednesday and Friday.

On Monday he is expected to question embattled Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., Law's former personnel secretary.

Those depositions are likely to touch on highly sensitive questions of church finances and personnel decisions involving known child molesters within the clergy.

In the cases of Law and McCormack, Brassard has ordered written and audio-video transcripts released as soon as they are certified by court reporters - a process that often takes a short time - because those clerics are ``substantial public figures'' with a diminished expectation of privacy.

MacLeish and other plaintiffs' lawyers say church counsel have engaged in a pattern of blocking answers to questions permissible under the broad rules governing depositions in civil suits. Those rules allow for questions that are ``reasonably'' aimed at garnering information pertinent to the suit.

MacLeish's emergency motion cites several examples from recent depositions of low-ranking church personnel in which counsel for the church unilaterally interrupted the depositions to consult with the client, or improperly coached the client into unresponsive answers.

He also provided Brassard with specific portions of the depositions of Sister Rita McCarthy, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins and Monsignor William H. Helmick, all chancery personnel officials, in which lawyers for the archdiocese, among them Timothy P. O'Neill, are allegedly interfering with the questions.

Although he provided the disputed portions of the depositions to the judge, he did not release them publicly due to Brassard's order that transcripts of secondary church figures not be released until 30 days after they are taken. In 1998, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled objections in depositions ``be made in a non-argumentative and non-suggestive'' way to ``prevent the indirect coaching of witnesses . . . by comments from counsel.''

MacLeish said he is ``extremely concerned'' that just such objections will be made in his upcoming interrogations, and wants judges to be available to resolve such disputes.

Paul J. Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, said civil depositions have become far more contentious and lawyers are increasingly seeking judicial redress.

``In Day 1 of Law's (John J.) Geoghan deposition,'' he said, ``it went smoothly since Judge (Constance M.) Sweeney was down the hall to resolve things on the spot.

``Maybe they'll have to resort to that again,'' he said, ``given the high stakes of these coming days.''

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