The Army of God

How a monk, an altar boy, and a sex-abuse victim joined forces to battle their common enemy: the Catholic Church

Harris was an Orange County icon: nicknamed "Father Hollywood," founder of Santa Margarita High, and a priest so beloved that hundreds held a rally for him the day he resigned as principal of Santa Margarita in 1994 after another student alleged molestation. So it wasn't much of a surprise that when DiMaria's family approached the diocese with the allegation a couple of months after Ryan's revelation, diocesan officials ignored them. "Like dumb Catholics, we went to the Church to solve our problem with them," he says with a laugh. When the Church refused repeated requests that the diocese reimburse DiMaria for his mounting psychotherapy bills, DiMaria's parents decided to pursue a lawsuit. Through a family friend, they arranged a meeting with an attorney — until they discovered the attorney represented Harris. The family friend, a tax attorney, then sent the DiMarias to the law offices of Kathy Freberg and John Manly. Freberg and Manly listened to DiMaria's story and agreed to take on his case. But Manly also warned DiMaria about the potential consequences. It would be a difficult mission — although plaintiffs had won sex-abuse cases against the diocese, Church officials, parishioners and the press skewered these alleged victims as money-hungry liars. And previous lawsuits against Harris quickly disappeared because the plaintiffs couldn't withstand the pressure. Most moved far from the county after the resolution of their cases; some became recluses. DiMaria drove aimlessly around Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach for hours after meeting with Freberg and Manly. Finally, he exited the 55 freeway near Triangle Square, stopped at a gas station and called Manly from a pay phone. DiMaria says, "I just told him, 'Yeah, I want to do this.'"

Another morning, another round of sex-abuse readings in the conference room. Wall begins reading some of the stuff he's discovered in his research — "Off the record," Manly tells me; he insists on this almost every other sentence — when Manly suddenly notices something. "Are you wearing a tie?!" he growls. Indeed, Wall is wearing a paisley, cross-hatched tie. "Take it off, goofball. Dipshit." "John, be nice," DiMaria gasps, as Wall sheepishly, silently takes off the tie and stuffs it into his pockets. "Fuck him," Manly retorts. The chatting suddenly stops — then everyone breaks into laughter before Wall starts reading anew. DiMaria keeps on laughing. At 30, he's the youngest of this group, but in many ways, he also seems more experienced than the others. He certainly looks the part. The hair is smartly coiffed. All his shirts bear the monogram "MRD." The voice is raspy, and the handsome blue eyes turn into daggers when he's provoked. Thing is, DiMaria never imagined becoming a lawyer, especially one who specialized in sex-abuse cases, and definitely not after serving as the plaintiff in one of the largest sex-abuse settlements in the history of the American Catholic Church. His 2001 case against the Orange diocese, DiMaria vs. Harris, remains a landmark in the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal; at that time, it was the largest single-plaintiff pre-trial settlement in the history of the Catholic Church in America. In addition to brokering the $5.2 million amount, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray also ordered Catholic officials from the Los Angeles Archdiocese and Orange diocese to remove Harris from the priesthood and personally apologize to DiMaria. But more important for DiMaria, Gray also forced both diocese to adopt reforms that DiMaria had personally drafted to guard against priestly sexual molestation: a zero-tolerance policy, an 800 number for victims to report sexual assault, and educational pamphlets for distribution in churches. Eventually, all Catholic diocese in the United States adopted DiMaria's suggestions, reforms that Church officials in Los Angeles and Orange nowadays brazenly pass off as their own idea. But the settlement came after five years of arduous discussions that nearly ruined DiMaria. Orange diocese lawyers demanded DiMaria's psychological records, grilled him in hours-long depositions, and stonewalled whenever DiMaria's side asked for documents crucial to their case. "I remember John told me before we started litigation that the defense attorneys would be cordial to me, try to be my friend," DiMaria says. "But the minute they had a chance, they would slit my throat." One of those lawyers was John Barnett, the articulate, unflappable Orange attorney who's achieved fame throughout the country for taking on seemingly impossible cases. He successfully defended one of the cops in the Rodney King beating and won an acquittal in the recent Gregory Haidl gang-rape trial. Barnett subjected DiMaria to an all-day deposition in the courtroom, calmly but methodically asking DiMaria to retell, over and over, his story of the abuse, of the substance abuse that followed, of his years of pain. DiMaria kept his calm. The Church's error was in thinking the harder they went after DiMaria, the faster he'd crack. "But the opposite happened," DiMaria says. He answered every question Barnett threw at him, never once breaking down on the stand or showing any emotion in public. "It's kind of 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,'" he says. He urged his lawyers, Manly and Freberg, to pursue the case to its conclusion.

During the depositions, DiMaria was trying to wrap up law school at Chapman University in Orange. He ultimately finished a couple of months before his case was scheduled for trial. Despite the settlement, DiMaria felt empty. "Getting to [the victory against Harris] was very stressful," he says. "You're so used to fighting, and then you have a chance to not fight for a little while. You're not used to relaxing. It's an uneasy feeling." About a year after the settlement, DiMaria and Manly met for lunch. Knowing DiMaria was seeking experience as a law clerk, Manly asked DiMaria to clerk for his new real-estate firm, Manly & McGuire. (Manly left his partnership with Kathy Freberg shortly after the DiMaria case for reasons that Manly says are "off the record.") Manly made the offer partly because of their previous relationship but also because DiMaria knew about building codes, ordinances and other real-estate minutiae; his parents owned trailer parks around Southern California. DiMaria accepted and quickly jumped into the complex world of real-estate law. He was happy. There was no more talk of sex abuse — after DiMaria, Manly hadn't pursued any other Church molestation cases. The firm thought the DiMaria case was a one-shot opportunity, and they were fine with that. But, provoked in large part by DiMaria, a revolution rumbled across Catholic America.

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