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

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.

A year after the settlement, the Boston archdiocese admitted to having condoned and covered up priestly pedophilia for decades. Soon, sex-abuse victims across the country began revealing their stories. Their accusations led to the defrocking and arrests of dozens of priests and hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits against diocese nationwide. The ensuing controversy inspired the California Legislature to pass a bill in late 2002 that lifted the statute of limitations on molestation cases in civil suits for all of 2003. Suddenly, anyone could sue the Catholic Church no matter how long ago the alleged sex abuse took place. And then the flood hit. Manly & McGuire received calls from alleged sex-abuse victims in the beginning of 2003 and decided to turn its resources toward research. DiMaria didn't immediately volunteer. "As a testament to what a great guy John is, he never asked until I offered," DiMaria said. That was the spring of 2003, and it wasn't a black-and-white decision for Manly. DiMaria requested a closed-door meeting with Manly and offered his help. "I really want to do this," DiMaria remembers telling Manly. But Manly refused. He feared DiMaria would suffer by working on sex-abuse cases. DiMaria was adamant: he needed this, he said. Manly relented only after DiMaria lobbied him for a month, but only on the condition that DiMaria stick to researching document files. Manly barred DiMaria from speaking directly with sex-abuse victims; DiMaria agreed to the go-slow approach. "When I started doing it, it was an experiment," DiMaria says. "I didn't know if it would destroy me. It hit so close to home, obviously. I still hadn't made the mental transition — I still considered myself a client, not a lawyer. But I think all [sex-abuse] survivors look for job positions where they can exert influence in their life and help others. I know I did. I didn't know if I realized it at the time, but I didn't feel as if I had any real choice in this."

As time went on, however, and as DiMaria gradually spoke with sex-abuse victims, he felt a renewed sense of control over his life. The $5.2 million settlement placed DiMaria and his newlywed wife on a secure financial footing; therapy had given him a measure of control over the horror of his memories. But in working with sex-abuse clients, DiMaria discovered something he'd been lacking, something the Church once provided but couldn't anymore: meaning. "Their interests are my interests," DiMaria says of his sex-abuse clients. "They're perfectly aligned."

When DiMaria passed the Bar Exam in June 2003, and after receiving the okay from DiMaria, Manly put him in charge of fielding calls from sex-abuse victims. Nowadays, DiMaria is the first person to talk to a prospective sex-abuse client. He hears their tale of molestation, gets up to grab the Kleenex box, and tells them his own story. He then offers the following warning: "I'm not going to try to sell you on this. It's very difficult. It could end up hurting you more than helping you." The majority of callers agree to pursue a case. "I met a kid who was suicidal, introverted, desperate, humorless. I now work with a man who's confident, funny and sharp," says Manly about DiMaria. "The only difference is vindication. The biggest issue in [sex-abuse] cases is trust. Most plaintiffs don't have any. But they're willing to believe Ryan because he's been there. He gets people to go where they wouldn't want to. He makes them feel comfortable enough. He was born to do this. Talk about courage — he faces that [sex-abuse] demon every day of his life." THE ALTAR BOY

John Manly felt troubled after he and his partner Kathy Freberg agreed to take on DiMaria's case. He believed DiMaria's story, but he would be warring with the Diocese of Orange, one of the largest diocese in the United States. He says proudly, unreservedly that its parochial-school system made him "the man that I am today." Not only that, Harris was his principal at Mater Dei. And now he was preparing to sue him and the diocese for millions. Manly and Freberg offered numerous settlement proposals — first, $100,000, then a bit more, finally $1 million. The diocese refused each. So Manly did the only thing he could think of: depose anyone and everyone in anticipation of a long and costly trial. He deposed Harris, questioning him about a love letter he once wrote to a teenage boy. He deposed police officers who investigated allegations against Harris and who complained that their superiors told them to lay off the case. Manly even deposed retired Orange Bishop Norman McFarland, getting him to admit that he understood why one of his priests once raped a 15-year-old girl: "Does one make a distinction that she's 15 or 17? She may be very precocious or adult-looking and everything else, and there would be the temptation there." After four and a half years of negotiation and just days before the start of jury selection for the case, the diocese settled for $5.2 million. Though happy that DiMaria won, Manly remained troubled. He never wanted to defy the Church again — the same Church whose Mass he still attended throughout the trial. But the way diocese officials acted during those four years told him the war was far from over.

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