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3 LAWYERS RISK THEIR CAREERS & THEIR FAITH TO WIN JUSTICE FOR KIDS WHO HAVE BEEN SEXUALLY ABUSED BY THEIR PRIESTS

Timothy J. Conlon swears like a drill sergeant, speaking with a thick Rhode Island accent so loudly that listeners must, for sanity's sake, hold the phone at bay. He once tried to have a law partner. It didn't work out.

The willingness to tolerate "extreme risk" is best suited to working alone, he explains. "The stress, the strain, the trauma in the kind of battle I'm waging . . . "

Conlon is a former stock car racer; now, he sues those who harm children. On his conference table in a Providence high rise is a book: The Complete Art of War.

Richard A. Cappalli is a softspoken grandfather and self-described country lawyer who took on asbestos manufacturers from 2 Main St., Woonsocket, his office near a deli and a karate studio.

Carl P. DeLuca abandoned dreams of a big-city career to launch DeLuca & DeLuca with his Uncle Ralph in Johnston. The young personal-injury lawyer drew clients with his full-sized Yellow Page ad and his TV commercial: We help you put your life together.

On his Web site, he posts his own reviews of John Grisham thrillers that depict the soulless lives of lawyers who become patsies for the rich. DeLuca, on the other hand, is a veritable little guy.

"He stood up. He was 6'5" I'm 5'5," he says of one case that had him up against seven lawyers, "one from D.C."

These are three men who came together to fight the biggest case of their careers. One guy talks tough, another chases snakes for a hobby, the third bemoans lawyers who sell out. They are all outraged by injustice. They all will fight against long odds.

They sued the Roman Catholic Church in the most Catholic state in the nation. They are each Roman Catholic.

The church spent nearly $4 million to fend them off.

For a decade, these lawyers were losing.

The bills piled up; Conlon lost his staff and his BMW.

The litigation grew ugly; Cappalli lost his religion.

The death threats came; DeLuca learned to shoot a gun.

THE CATHOLIC Church was preparing for the likes of the three lawyers.

In 1988, at the national meeting for diocesan attorneys, church lawyers, including one from Providence, discussed how to foil lawsuits over sexual misconduct. A lawyer from Joliet, Ind., according to minutes of the meeting, offered consolation: Not all plaintiffs' lawyers are sophisticated.

"Often they trip over the first hurdle."

Richard Cappalli, who in 1993 launched this 10-year stretch of litigation against the Providence diocese, prides himself on playing down his sophistication.

He is 62, slightly built, with thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, and kind eyes behind thick glasses. He has cuts on one hand from his latest hobby -- catching garter snakes on the golf course.

He has a Georgetown University law degree and the accouterments of success: the home in Florida, the cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee. Yet, instead of joining a big-name firm, he hung a shingle, as he says it, at 2 Main St., giving offices to his wife, who was his private investigator, his two daughters, both lawyers, and a son-in-law, also a lawyer. His third daughter answered phones, and his father, a streetwise retired textile engraver, worked as his law clerk and ran the courthouse shuttle.

Cappalli represented the divorcing, the debilitated, and a developer trying to convince the North Smithfield planning board to let him pave a road. He also did work -- pro bono, of course -- for his parish, St. Theresa of Child Jesus in Burrillville. If a priest needed a will, Cappalli wrote it. Was there a lease to sign? Cappalli looked it over. When he donated money to restore the church's marble foyer, St. Theresa hung a plaque in his honor.

The Cappallis kept silence on Good Friday in a symbol of Christ's dying on the cross. That devotion was common at St. Theresa, which has Rhode Island's only Vatican-sanctioned shrine, a relic that is said to have once healed a local baby. The third Sunday of each August, Catholics arrive by the busload to see the glass-enclosed sliver of the shoulder bone of a French nun.

It was a religious revelation that brought Cappalli his biggest case -- a case that would become the nation's longest legal battle over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

In 1992, Cappalli's childhood pal from Cranston's Oaklawn neighborhood phoned, saying that God had called upon him to right the wrong done to a friend.

Cappalli's friend was a lawyer in Washington, D.C. His friend's colleague, Leland White, had disclosed a secret: he had been molested 22 years earlier in Newport by the Rev. James M. Silva, his hip parish priest who was given to quoting Crosby, Stills and Nash. White was a success outwardly; inside, he was depressed and angry.

White, then in his 30s, wanted to sue the Providence diocese for negligence; for one thing, Silva still served in parishes. White knew that Bishop Louis E. Gelineau had testified in a deposition a few years earlier that he ignored warnings about the Rev. William C. O'Connell, who later pleaded no contest to sexually abusing three boys in Rhode Island before moving to New Jersey, where he was again arrested and pleaded guilty on numerous charges of sexual misconduct. Was the diocese mishandling abusive priests?

Cappalli believed White. He also learned that the diocese had transferred Father Silva 12 times in 15 years, once sending him between parish assignments to New Mexico to the Servants of Paracletes, which ran a center to treat priests for sexual misconduct.

Should we do this? Cappalli asked his wife.

"This to me," he recalls, "was suing one of the most powerful organizations on the face of the earth."

"I asked him," says his wife, Regina, "what did you become a lawyer for?"

WHEN CAPPALLI filed a lawsuit on St. Patrick's Day 1993, angry Catholics called his office. How dare he go after the church? A priest chastised him in a letter to the Woonsocket paper. But others called him with evidence.

The director of the women's club at St. Matthew's, in Cranston, a parishioner from St. Joseph's, in Burrillville, and a Naval chaplain from St. Lucy's, in Middletown, each said in affidavits that they warned Bishop Gelineau about Father Silva in the 1970s. Each time, the diocese moved the priest to a new parish. The Naval chaplain recalled Gelineau's response to his report that Father Silva had tried to molest a youngster: "Oh no, not again."

In time, Cappalli had about 10 clients, including one from his very own church, St. Theresa. Russell Cote's case was recent enough for him to file criminal charges against Father Silva, whom the 21-year-old security guard said had abused him in 1981, while on a temporary assignment at the Burrillville church.

A grand jury indicted Silva on second-degree sexual assault, and the litigation grew fierce.

The church's lawyers attacked the young man "with a vengeance," Cappalli says. Silva showed up at Cote's deposition in 1994, wearing a powder-blue sport coat, taking a seat across from his accuser. This was unusual. Cappalli "saw the kind of hardball they intended to play."

James T. Murphy, the Providence diocese's lawyer, is a father of seven, and a lector at his Roman Catholic parish, where his wife is a eucharistic minister.

After the Cote deposition, Murphy said he hadn't known Silva was going to show up. But asked at the time about his aggressive style, Murphy said he was protecting his clients from allegations that were "extremely damaging to the Roman Catholic Church."

"I don't want to get into a contest about who is playing more hardball than the other. Let's put it this way, this is the big leagues, OK?"

Soon after Cote's deposition, the diocese settled with him for $150,000. Father Silva changed his not-guilty plea to guilty.

BY 1995, Cappalli had 21 civil lawsuits against the diocese -- and a struggle on his hands. The diocese buried him in paper, nitpicked, "raised every technical defense" they could. Plaintiffs' lawyers call the technique "scorched-earth litigation," a strategy to frustrate and drive away smaller foes.

When instead of quitting, Cappalli came at them like a bird dog, the diocese sent him letters: Cease your case, or we'll sue you for legal fees.

"I laughed and threw them in the trash," says Cappalli.

He also recruited a team; it's not easy to find lawyers willing to fight the Catholic Church in a state where once, for instance, a chief justice of the Supreme Court was also a Knight of the Catholic Order of St. Gregory the Great.

"The Catholic Church has such power in this state that anybody would be reluctant to take these cases on," says Peter Kennedy, a trial lawyer in Providence. "You have got to be a risk-taker."

Cappalli found Carl DeLuca.

At the time, DeLuca, a personal injury lawyer, was in his 30s, much younger than Cappalli. But he didn't tiptoe around Rhode Island's powers. When the rest of the policy-making board of the state's bar association voted against asking for the resignation of Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fay -- then accused, later convicted, of corruption -- DeLuca protested.

"Are we blind? Are we cowards?" he shouted. "This is a defining moment for us because a lot of people out there think we're jerks. And if we don't make the right decision today, they may be right."

He didn't change his colleagues' minds, but he was asked to fill in on radio talk shows.

"I took chances, I always took chances," DeLuca says as he drives from his office through the bland commercial strip near the airport in Warwick. He pulls into a Bickford's and steps inside. DeLuca is now 42, with glasses, a thick mustache, and diminishing dark hair. He has the build of a former high school fullback -- short and broad-shouldered.

When he's explaining things, his voice lowers and he leans in, as if he's giving top-secret information. When talking about one injustice, he frequently goes off on a tangent about another, and then shakes his head, saying "I don't know how long I'll be able to work in Rhode Island," or, "I just can't look the other way," or, "there's not a long shelf life for someone like me."

After Hofstra University law school, DeLuca considered staying in New York, but he missed home; a lawyer, he knew, could keep plenty busy in Rhode Island. His Uncle Ralph was waiting for him, and the two men opened DeLuca & DeLuca in a Johnston medical complex where DeLuca's father, a pediatrician, practiced.

DeLUCA STARTED his own pre-law program at Moses Brown, the private prep school on Providence's East Side. Class president three years straight, he carried a binder full of every rule that pertained to high schools. "If the school violated any rule, I made it known to them."

When the school told a classmate he couldn't graduate because he fell short on math requirements, DeLuca advised him "he could sue for malpractice because the school had recommended his courses."

Once, he intervened when a teacher accused one of his classmates of having pot. The teacher had found marijuana cigarettes in the bushes at school and said he knew they belonged to this student because he saw the boy toss the joints in the air -- sending them into the bushes.

The classmate confided in DeLuca: He had stashed the pot in the bushes, in a phony Coke can with a removable bottom, but no one had been around; he hadn't thrown anything.

DeLuca suspected the teacher was lying, that the "only way he could connect the pot to the kid was to say he saw him throw it in the air."

So with the teacher and a school administrator present, DeLuca tested the landing pattern of marijuana, by tossing fake joints into the air. "No matter how we threw them," he says, "they didn't fall like the teacher said." The teacher backed off; DeLuca considered a career in criminal law.

It wasn't that he had disdain for authority, he says. It was the opposite. He had such respect for authority, that he hated to see it misused. He saw Cappalli's cases against the diocese as the ultimate example of leadership gone wrong. To him, the diocese was abusing its authority, lying to save its image for Catholics, such as his Italian-born mother, Josephina, who gave money "hand over fist" to the church, and for DeLuca himself, who had just married in the church.

"To me, this was like the Olympics," he says. "Why bother going to law school if I wasn't going to take cases like this?"

ATTICUS FINCH, the righteous small-town lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, said there comes a day in every lawyer's career where things get personal. This case quickly did for DeLuca. One of the clients who had come to DeLuca and Cappalli was Frank DiBenedetto, DeLuca's childhood friend from Our Lady of Grace.

As a boy, Frankie DiBenedetto had jet black hair and big blue eyes, and could sing and play accordion so naturally that he won the "most talented" award at Graniteville Elementary School in 1971. His father, a woodworker, built altars and pews for the parish, and one year carried the church's 5-foot Madonna in Our Lady of Grace's annual procession through the streets of Johnston.

DeLuca and DiBenedetto were in the parish's Catholic Youth Organization, and its annual production of Godspell. Their assistant pastor led each. The priest also took the parish youth group skiing in New Hampshire.

DeLuca demanded a refund from the hotel's front desk because the indoor pool that had been advertised was still under construction. The priest told DeLuca to settle down; he paid more attention to DiBenedetto, taking him on a special snowmobiling trip.

DiBenedetto later told DeLuca that the priest had molested him, from age 11 through his early teens, and had showered him with presents, and plied him with marijuana and alcohol. The priest was later removed from parish work and left the Diocese of Providence.

As an adult, DiBenedetto was a musician who wrote ballads that reminded friends of Billy Joel. He released his own album. It didn't go anywhere, but he tried. He could make anything out of wood. He graduated mortuary school to become a funeral director, and got a copyright for his own solution to clean Formica. He made lists, hundreds of lists of the things he was going to accomplish, and read self-help books.

He asked God to help him drive away the addictions that had tormented him since he was a teenager. He also asked DeLuca for help.

IN 1996, Cappalli and DeLuca had more than 25 civil cases against the diocese.

The diocese was trying to get the cases dismissed. The lawsuits violated the First Amendment, the church argued. Or, they violated the state's statute of limitations for civil lawsuits, which must be filed within three years.

But state law doesn't define the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse; victims, ashamed and reluctant to go public about their abuse, often don't come forward for years.

Cappalli and DeLuca argued that their clients were of "unsound mind." They said that psychological distress had silenced them, that the victims' lives had been so derailed by the abuse that it took many years for them to speak out and take action against the Roman Catholic Church. In some cases, the lawyers said, the victims had repressed memories of the abuse.

The trial courts had asked the state Supreme Court to decide how the statute of limitations applied to sexual abuse cases, effectively halting activity on the church cases.

That's when Timothy J. Conlon joined Cappalli and DeLuca. Conlon had already picked up one lawsuit against the diocese.

Superior Court Judge Richard J. Israel was overseeing the litigation, and asked the lawyers if they would combine their cases. He didn't want everyone going off on their own, he told them. They agreed.

But Conlon said he wouldn't agree to stop litigation while the Supreme Court wrestled with the unsound mind theory; he told the judge he had a way around the statutes. Conlon wanted to accuse the bishop of conspiracy.

He believed the church was engaging in a cover-up.

Conlon believed he had evidence of this after he met a clothing store clerk who told him he had been sexually abused by a priest as a teenager. Conlon considered taking his case and began to research the allegations. He asked the man, who was in his 20s, to come to his office, and had him call the priest. They taped the call.

The former altar boy made small talk with his onetime priest, and then asked if he could meet with him. The priest agreed to meet the next day.

But within a few hours, the priest left a message on the man's answering machine, canceling the meeting. He said the bishop had forbidden him to talk, and instead told him to refer the former parishioner to Robert McCarthy at the diocese. Conlon knew that McCarthy was a former Massachusetts State Police lieutenant whom Bishop Gelineau had hired solely for the diocese's internal investigations of sexual abuse claims.

"What the hell is he doing mentioning McCarthy?" Conlon recalls. "He had never mentioned sexual abuse."

Noting that the diocese had forbidden the priest to talk, Conlon smiles. "Well, ha-ha! Can you say conspiracy?"

"We had been using psychological disability as our sharp arrow," Conlon says. "I told [the judge] I've got a leg around the statutes. I crafted the complaint to speak to conspiracy; the church had tried to silence the perp. A ground war broke out between me and the church."

CONLON WORKS on the 13th floor of the Turks Head Building in downtown Providence. A framed picture of a BMW-M1 hangs on the wall. Conlon paces while on the phone, speaking into his headset.

He is tall, Irish-Catholic, and 47, with gray streaks on the sides of his dark, curly beard. He grew up in East Providence, and learned the art of arguing during the Vietnam War. When he came home from La Salle Academy with a black arm band to protest the war, his father, a middle manager in construction, grilled him for hours on his views. His mother took him to St. Martha parish.

After Vanderbilt Law School, itching for experience arguing in court, Conlon joined the Rhode Island public defender's office, which assigned him to the juvenile division on Family Court's fifth floor, where the exasperated crowd the hall seven to a bench, and someone is usually crying in the corner. Conlon came to believe that many had been sexually abused.

"Go to the fifth floor and take a look at the population," he says. "A shockingly high percentage of those kids are victims of abuse. At the Training School, I bet you 80 percent of those kids have been sexually abused."

He sued Radio Corporation of America, which had a half-million-dollar contract with the state to run the RCA Evaluation and Treatment Center in Cranston. Instead, Conlon said, it became a dumping ground for the state's transient teenage population -- "one big pain in the butt."

"You've got 15-year-old girls, [expletive] hell on wheels. Boys, pissed off. Take normal teenagers, max it on steroids times 30. Every group home says [expletive] you, I'm not taking her. The boy tells the guy who runs the home to [expletive] himself, 'I'm going out till 3 a.m. and if you don't like it you can screw.' "

He was able to "spring the kids" in 1984; Family Court ruled that the state could no longer use diagnostic centers as youth shelters. "It was the first time where, in my career, anyway, I had the feeling I was able to do something that had broad meaning. I remember walking in and there was 17 kids. They wanted out, you follow me?"

He leans forward, his voice rising. "They had no voice. No way to get out. They were a very needy class of individuals who had a fairly clear violation of their fundamental constitutional rights."

Later, in private practice, Conlon settled out of court a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit -- in 1988 -- against the Providence school department. Three former students said a teacher molested them. Depositions showed the teacher was shifted from school to school, Conlon said, "in what teachers call the dance of the lemons. It's not like the Catholic church has a corner on this, you follow me?"

Conlon reaches for his legal pad. "I had never had a priest case. Had a schoolteacher case, a group home case. I knew a priest case was out there, I wasn't stupid. I was quite aware of . . . the dynamic of shuffling the perp."

Now, he says, take that same dynamic and put it in the church, "one of the more secret and powerful institutions."

On his notebook, he writes three categories: "Perp." "People." "Institution."

The perp would deny, he says, the people around the perp would deny, and the institution would deny.

"They don't want to know, OK? They couldn't possibly assume."

He points to the word "institution" on his legal pad.

"The institution is in denial about misconduct by its own staff, right," he says, circling the category.

He looks up and leans in, his hands held up in surrender, his lips pursed, his eyelids appear to be turning purple. "THEY DON'T WANT TO KNOW! Like a spouse who doesn't want to believe that her spouse is screwing around!"

He taps his pen at each category on his legal pad. "Denial from the perp." Tap. "Institutional denial." Tap. "People deny." Tap.

"Those forces are at work in every institution."

Conlon leans back, and strokes his beard: "They give half-assed explanations. They grasp at it almost like a straw. Don't let it happen again, OK?"

"Your group homes. Your school departments, your church, all mediums in which a pedophile can find ready access."

"They are EXPLOITED by the perp so as to be able to prey."

"Now," he asks, "which is most vulnerable?"

"Group homes? Nahhh. They're licensed, they contract with the state, bababbabbab . . . Schools?

Nahhh. I don't think so. Unions? Teacher contracts? I mean you know . . . "

"Churches?" He laughs. "Hmmmm. You follow me?"

He jumps up and grabs a book, The Sexual Exploitation of Children. His legs crossed, shiny black shoes dangling, he flips pages, smirks, and reads with mock surprise: "He will claim to know NOTHING about the alleged activity. He will say a MISTAKE has been made."

"It's a fabulous book," he says.

He leans back, his pen in his mouth. "From my end, I'm going to go after the institutions. If you sue the institution, you cause them to become accountable for their willingness to look the other way. You force them to move out of denial phase . . . "

WHEN THE three lawyers joined forces in 1996, DeLuca focused on crafting legal strategies to dispute the diocese's claim that as a church, it was protected by the First Amendment from being sued over the supervision of its priests. Cappalli and Conlon began writing a new complaint, one that combined all the lawsuits, and emphasized conspiracy; the court gave them a deadline.

Cappalli drove from Woonsocket to Conlon's Providence office one afternoon and the two got started. They ordered pizza, and put on coffee. Cappalli, with a stack of notes, held forth with his encyclopedic grasp of the facts: who had complained about Father Silva when, for instance, and how soon afterward the diocese moved the priest to a new parish.

Conlon, at his computer, folded the facts into legal theories.

They worked into the night. Around 3 a.m., they took their first break, riding the elevator down to the street. They stood outside, in Providence's dormant financial district, and stared up, where a lunar eclipse moved across the moon. Then they returned to their files, in Conlon's office.

The next night, they toiled until morning again. Their new, combined complaint was 150 pages, and was compelling enough that Judge Israel didn't dismiss the lawsuits, as the diocese requested. Still, the cases barely moved in court. The church refused to turn over records that would show what it had known and done about abusive priests. The courts would not order them to.

For the next two years, into the late 1990s, the team of three lawyers worked on strategy over sausage and macaroni at a long table at the rear of St. Anthony's Social Club on Charles Street in Providence. It was a quaint spot where tomatoes grew in a patio garden, and patrons played bocci out back. It was out of the way enough so other lawyers wouldn't see them, says DeLuca.

Weekly 9 p.m. conference calls among the lawyers every Wednesday at times dissolved into hours of yelling.

Cappalli describes the legal team as three totally different personalities. None of them naturally played well with others. No plaintiff's lawyer does. They're egotistical, Conlon says, a bunch of chiefs. But this case was different. David's sling alone wasn't going to bring down Goliath, the diocese. Acting alone, each lawyer would have been "squashed."

Cappalli is 15 years older than Conlon, and 20 years older than DeLuca. He is prone to long pauses, and listens more than he talks; instead of nodding when he understands, he will tilt his head to one side and say kindly, "Is that right?"

Conlon is not inclined to pause. DeLuca is measured.

Judge Israel recalls the mix of "temperaments." DeLuca was the most direct, he says, while Conlon was articulate and "prone to addressing the court at greater length than this colleagues. Mr. Cappalli rarely addressed the court, but when he did, I found it was worthwhile to pay attention."

Says Conlon: "I was the most aggressive, looking for the most in-your-face or extreme way of attacking. Carl [DeLuca] was pragmatic to the extent that the two of us were totally in the opposite direction."

DeLuca knew aggression could backfire, that sometimes, it's better to endure a few shots, to let the other side look bad before the judge. Law is like a chess game, he says, there are many paths. Take the wrong one, you risk blowing the whole plan.

In time, the lawyers united on common turf: unwavering pursuit of a victory.

"Until they heard the final bell," says Judge Israel, these lawyers weren't going away.

Cappalli says, "The other side underestimated our resolve. Nobody was going to walk away."

"They needed us," he says of their clients. "These people were different. We found they became part of our families."

BY THE LATE 1990s, nine lawyers in Rhode Island had cases against the diocese. Each lawyer was Roman Catholic, one a former nun.

The lawyers combined their lawsuits. Arlene Violet, once a Sister of Mercy, and once the state's attorney general, had one case. The three lead lawyers -- Cappalli, Conlon, and DeLuca -- never talked about giving up, she says, even when it became obvious "that because of the diocese's stonewalling, we would be in this for a very long time."

The 38 civil lawsuits involved 11 priests, six of whom had been convicted in criminal cases.

Evidence that the diocese had been warned of misconduct kept coming in.

For instance, a former University of Rhode Island administrator said in an affidavit that he had warned Bishop Daniel P. Reilly more than once about Monsignor Louis W. Dunn's "inappropriate behavior involving young girls."

Reilly, said the affidavit, told the administrator that this was a "standing problem" with Dunn.

Dunn was later convicted of rape.

The three lawyers also learned that a Providence psychiatrist had written Bishop Reilly in 1970, saying the Rev. Richard Marcantonio had engaged in sexual relationships with numerous boys and "there was a poor prognosis for a cure."

After that warning, the diocese sent Marcantonio to Iowa for therapy, and to earn a doctorate degree in psychology. He returned to parish work in Rhode Island in 1975, even once leading a Boy Scout camp, but was removed with no explanation in the 1980s.

Despite numerous such examples of prior knowledge by the diocese, Judge Israel refused to force church officials to release their complete personnel files. The lawyers believed those files would show complaints received about priests, and what action the diocese had taken.

Judge Israel says now that his decision was based on his interpretation of the separation of church and state. In his view, that separation was established by the Constitution to protect religion. It was not established because the state would be harmed by the intrusion of religion, he says, but rather religion would be harmed by the intrusion of the state.

It was with this mindset that Israel allowed the diocese to withhold many documents on grounds of "clergy-penitent" privilege, the state law that provides a shroud of confidentiality over conversations between clergy and a person who seeks guidance. The diocese successfully argued that this privilege protected most conversations, memoranda, and internal investigations -- including those concerning possible criminal conduct.

Israel's ruling came despite the fact that Rhode Island had amended its child-abuse reporting laws to say that, except for attorney-client privilege, no exceptions existed when it came to reporting abuse. Yet, Israel said this amendment didn't apply to churches.

Judge Israel also ruled that the separation of church and state meant that the courts simply lacked the power to delve into whether the diocese "negligently hired, retained, disciplined, or counseled" priests. "Inquiry into such matters would plainly take this court into religious questions beyond its jurisdiction," Israel wrote in 1998.

It was a drastically different standard than say, a school, was held to in Rhode Island. A 1998 Superior Court ruling decreed that a former Providence school superintendent could be held civilly liable for a teacher's sexual misconduct, even if he was never told about it. He had a duty to maintain close supervision over teachers to ensure none posed a risk.

But Israel did not dismiss the lawsuits, and the plaintiffs' lawyers believed that if they ever got before a jury, they could prove their conspiracy theory.

DeLuca started charting the evidence.

"I was going to show the jury that there was no way the diocese didn't know," he says.

He puts down his coffee and motions to an imaginary color-coded chart, his hands moving like a flight attendant pointing out exit rows.

He motions left: "Warned, over here."

To the middle: "Moved, over here."

To the right: "Abused, over here."

ALSO IN 1998, Israel changed the rules of the game.

It would not be enough for the plaintiffs' lawyers to prove that the church hierarchy knew a priest was a sexual offender, he said; they would need to prove intent.

"All that is left in the case," Israel said, according to a transcript of the proceedings, is that the diocese "intended harm to your client."

"That is all that is left alive," Israel said. "Are the plaintiffs ready to go forward with that?"

"We were incredulous," recalls DeLuca. "We just didn't feel like there was any logic to it. We were shocked. It was a kick in the teeth."

Conlon, Cappalli, and DeLuca left the courthouse that day and went separate ways, like forlorn players on a losing team. "We didn't even want to talk about it for a few days," said DeLuca. "We just felt like we couldn't win at anything."

They were losing in more places than in court . . .

Cappalli, a lawyer for almost 30 years, had reserves to keep his business alive. DeLuca and Conlon did not. They were spending all their time on the lawsuits against the diocese. While a top defense lawyer in Providence can make a few hundred dollars an hour, plaintiffs' lawyers get paid only if and when they win.

DeLuca borrowed $50,000 to keep his firm afloat, and then fell behind on his loan payments. He missed property-tax payments on his house in Johnston. He bought back his own house in a tax sale.

He let go his black BMW convertible, his staff, and his suite in a Providence office tower, where he had moved after his onetime partner, his Uncle Ralph, had died. DeLuca moved into a bland office on a busy road in Warwick. He told himself it was a good thing; he was so lean, he had little to lose. Defeat gave him drive.

"I was resigned to the fact I probably wasn't getting any money, but I would be damned if I was going to give up," DeLuca says. "We were going to take it the U.S. Supreme Court. We were determined to go through with these cases come hell or high water. We just couldn't let them get away with it."

The bank repossessed Conlon's BMW, and sent a foreclosure notice on the lawyer's cabin near Lake Winnipesaukee. He and his wife, a documentary filmmaker at URI, put their Warren house in her name, partly to protect it from creditors. The phone company switched off his office line.

Providence defense lawyer David Zizik pleaded with Conlon to give up the church cases, "so he wouldn't have a heart attack by the time he was 50, with the inherent risk that the fee would be zero at the end of this."

Conlon and DeLuca would not tell each other until years later about their financial struggles. "You can't be showing signs of weakness," Conlon says.

"Put blood in the water, and the sharks come. We were in a war, and the defense was threatening to swallow us."

THE LAWSUITS were costing them in other ways; every fact, every sordid detail of abuse of a child darkened their psyches like a permanent fog.

One afternoon in 1997, DeLuca learned that his friend and client, Frank DiBenedetto, from Our Lady of Grace in Johnston, had died, at age 37.

DeLuca was shocked. He knew DiBenedetto had recently finished six months in a rehab center, where he had been an inspiration to others who were suffering from addictions. He was teaching music. He seemed to be getting his life together.

But something happened, says his sister, Debra DiBenedetto, and he slipped back into his addictions, dying with lists of his plans for his life scattered around his apartment.

Debra recalls her brother: "There was this underlying blackness that plagued him -- the pain put upon him that he didn't ask for. Nobody could ever understand what he went through."

Some people overcome sexual abuse, she says. Her brother couldn't. His abuse and its aftermath was "the worst-case scenario."

"It took our boy away. This took him away. That's what we believe."

DeLuca continued to represent DiBenedetto's estate.

Now, when DeLuca talks about his friend, he takes off his glasses, looks down, and rubs his eyes. "Yeah, I took this one personally," he says.

Back then, DeLuca says, he had to put his grief in a compartment, to be opened up later, when he didn't have a case to win.

He had a mindset to change, and a tradition to, not tarnish, but overcome. His own parents believed in him, but they doubted sexual abuse was an extensive problem in the church. A Catholic lawyer across the hall was outright hostile to him.

Once, DeLuca went on talk radio to discuss a case against Monsignor Dunn, the Providence priest convicted of rape. He returned to his office to two voice-mail messages: "I hope you rot in hell." "You deserve to die!"

He drove to Foster and joined the Highland Rod & Gun club. He learned to shoot a handgun.

THE GREATEST loss, to Richard and Regina Cappalli, was their religion.

Richard Cappalli saw the church waging an "aggressive attack" on his innocent clients. It wasn't how a church, any church, should behave, he says.

Regina began to get a sick feeling; she had done much research for the lawsuits.

Alone in her office one day during Holy Week, Regina yelled to the bishops. How dare you take my church from me?

She had always aspired to live by Corinthians: "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."

There was no love, she recalls, in what she saw as she investigated the church.

"How dare you gamble with our kids? Forgive these priests, yes, you can forgive them. Give them a place to live, take care of them, I'll even pay for it. But keep them the hell away from my kids."

She talked to God. "I can't handle this. Please take care of it. Do not let them get away with it."

IN LATE 2000, the diocese wrote in its financial report that it was being sued; but it had mounted a considerable defense and intended to prevail. The diocese was so confident, it set aside no money for settlements or court judgments.

Last year, Murphy, the diocesan lawyer, wrote Conlon that court decisions had proven the lawsuits against the church had little merit. If Conlon didn't "dismiss this civil action" within 15 days, the diocese would sue him for attorneys' fees.

Conlon wrote back, refusing: "Let's not waste our time posturing, Jim."

DeLuca had a new strategy: he wanted a new judge. DeLuca had learned that Judge Israel had been director of his synagogue. He filed a motion arguing that Israel had a conflict; that because of the judge's religious leadership position, he couldn't objectively decide questions concerning liability of the Catholic Church hierarchy. The motion asked Israel to rescue himself.

Israel, who had already retired but who was still overseeing the church cases, stepped down last winter.

Superior Court Judge Robert D. Krause, a gruff former trial lawyer, took over at the start of this year. It was a new judge and a new time.

Outrage spread from Boston over the shuffling of a pedophile priest by the archdiocese there. Similar situations came out across the nation. The laity organized; the Vatican called cardinals to Rome; U.S. bishops pledged a new policy on sexual abuse.

Krause ordered the Providence diocese and plaintiffs' lawyers to prepare for trial. In May, the diocese scheduled 40 depositions in 30 days. The aggressive pace of litigation caught fire.

In June, Conlon sat through hours of questioning of a victim's father, mother, and brother.

"The bishop's lawyers, two no less, wanted to know who in the family played golf, about the victim's deceased former spouse; what did she die of, anyway? They asked each family member separately. Oh, and now that his former wife is dead, does he live with his new girlfriend? Hundreds of dollars an hour burned by our bishop to dig for dirt on a victim," he said then of the questioning.

In another deposition, Murphy reminded the parents of three abused boys that they had never complained about the priest to the bishop.

The mother of the boys thought she had handled the abusive priest by confronting him directly. The priest assured her that he was being treated for his problem, and the mother believed that the diocese was handling it.

But the priest went on to abuse others before he was eventually convicted.

During the deposition, Murphy implied that because the parents never went to the bishop, they had allowed the pedophile to move through the diocese unchecked.

Murphy knew the couple; his second-oldest son and their youngest son had been co-captains of Bishop Hendricken's soccer team. It was "very hard to depose these people," he says.

The father, a Sears tool salesman, was stung by Murphy's implications. Asked by Murphy why one of his sons had filed a lawsuit, the father said: "To have the church take the responsibility to remove these pedophiles from the church, OK, that is the reason. You can believe that or not. But that's the only way something gets done with the church -- if there's a lawsuit brought. If they think it's going to hurt their assets, then they'll make changes."

According to the transcript of the deposition, Murphy grew irritated with DeLuca: "You know why I'm upset, Carl, you tell these poor people lies about my client . . . these poor men and women are more upset because of the lawyers than they are about anything the goddamned priests did."

Said DeLuca: "Please note Mr. Murphy was raising his voice, pounding the table, acting in a threatening manner."

The father, referring to Murphy, said: "My blood pressure is sky high. He can't keep yelling at people like this and intimidating people. I have to go take a pill."

Murphy responded: "You can leave. Sit down, Carl."

When the father left the room, DeLuca told Murphy: "You cannot behave like that. I'm sorry, you can't behave like that."

Murphy told DeLuca: "Don't aggravate me and don't lie on the record saying I'm acting violently."

DeLuca said: "You're banging the table, yelling."

"I was not banging the table," Murphy said. "I made a point."

"You banged the table, Jim. That's what you did."

"If I banged the table, I'm very sorry, Carl. Now what are we going to do? Are we going to go see the judge? Let's go see the judge."

"You yell at my clients," DeLuca said, "try to convince them that we're the bad guys, you say."

"You created a monster, Carl, in the press," Murphy said. "I think you created a problem."

DeLuca said that it was Murphy who had upset his client. "We all know what you're trying to do. You're trying to convince [them] that they are all wrong about the diocese."

ONE MONTH later, in July, it was Murphy who was in the hot seat.

Judge Krause ordered the diocese to turn over files to show what the hierarchy knew and did about abusive priests. Circumstances had changed since Judge Israel's ruling, he wrote; there was a "national clamor" for change in the Catholic Church.

"By no stretch of the most fertile imagination," the judge wrote, could there be religious-based rationale for withholding information on the abuse of children.

The diocese's lawyers asked state Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams to intervene. Instead, Williams said: "Let me say this, you've been through 10 years of torture. Isn't it time to end it?"

During five weeks of mediation over the summer, clients told their memories of abuse to Bishop Robert Mulvee's chief of staff, a gentle-spoken priest, Monsignor Paul D. Theroux. Debra DiBenedetto went in place of her brother, Frank. She brought pictures, displayed in a slide show. There was Frank as altar boy; there was a picture of Frank's children, next to a copy of their father's obituary.

She heard apologies from Monsignor Theroux, and comforting words from the diocese's lawyers. Yet when they began to discuss the terms of the settlement, she had to leave the room.

"Yeah, we were being paid, but for what? How can any money make up for self-esteem, lives destroyed, families broken up, years of self-hatred, self-abuse."

At the mediation, DeLuca told the monsignor: You have a chance to fix something here. "You're not here for me. You lost me. You're here for my parents, you're here for Tim [Conlon's] parents."

On Sept. 9, at the Diocese of Providence's chancery downtown, Bishop Mulvee announced an out-of-court settlement.

At the news conference with Bishop Mulvee, Conlon spoke for himself, DeLuca, Cappalli and the other lawyers who had combined their lawsuits against the diocese. Conlon's mother, an elderly eucharistic minister with white curls, watched, her hands clasped at her chest, as her son stood by the bishop.

In an emotional statement, the bishop asked the victims for forgiveness. Afterward, as the crowd dispersed, Conlon gripped Bishop Mulvee's shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said through tears:

"You did the right thing."

The diocese paid $13.5 million to 36 plaintiffs.

Conlon, DeLuca, and Cappalli would split about a third of the money, with the other lawyers getting a smaller share.

The Catholic lawyers had sued what some historians call the social conscience of Rhose Island. They had won.

In legal terms.

ASKED WHY he took the risk, Conlon says, "I don't know. I don't know. I honestly don't know. Why did I want to race motocross in college? I just did. You know the most relaxing vacation I ever took?"

Years ago, after winning in court, he took his snowmobile north. "I rode it 1,000 miles through the woods by myself -- New Hampshire to Quebec, over to Montreal, OK, and back through the woods, 90 miles an hour across potato fields.

"It was cold, I was alone, no one could call me, no one could make you do anything."

He sips his black tea.

"I never would have quit," he says of the church lawsuits. "Never. I felt we were right. It's not like we weren't right. And people were abused. The church made a mistake, and the institution needed to be held accountable. Unless it was going to completely destroy me, I wasn't about to stop."

He draws arrows on his legal pad, charting his few hours of sleep through the draining legal ordeal. "You can't function. It screws you up. Why do it? Because I had to."

He strokes his beard and closes his eyes.

IN HIS LAW firm, Cappalli steps through quiet halls. His office is empty these days. Framed newspaper articles on the dark paneling show the local paper's accolades to the Cappallis, the family of lawyers.

Music from a festival on Main Street drifts upstairs, where the office grows dim from the dusk.

Richard and Regina Cappalli are retiring from the practice of law.

And, they are no longer practicing Catholics.

"When it happened to us," he says, "we were shocked. That was the unexpected consequence for us."

There is still hope for a settlement of the heart.

"You don't spend your life with the traditions of the Catholic church and not miss it."

DeLUCA PAID off his debts, hired a secretary, and bought a new, black Volvo -- with tiny DVD screens in the headrests facing the backseat, where his two children ride.

DeLuca still cannot bring himself to trust the church's apology. Yes, in the end they had treated his clients with dignity.

Yet, "We didn't get here because of compassion. We got here because we beat them. We got here because of the reality of the legal situation."

The church had long lost DeLuca's faith. But it has not lost all of him.

He is driving through Warwick, toward his office. He parks his car and steps out to children's laughter, and the sight of a whir of plaid from recess at the Catholic school across the way. He sends his children to a parochial school in Johnston. He wants them to have the upbringing, the tradition, that he did.

The church, he says, helped make him the lawyer he is today.

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