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

Tuesday morning, July 6, 2004: the Portland Archdiocese has declared bankruptcy, the first diocese to declare bankruptcy in the history of the American Catholic Church. DiMaria is on vacation — "He's always fucking gone," Manly scoffs; it's a joke because this is DiMaria's first vacation in more than two years. But Wall and Manly are calling everyone they know while descending the elevator for lunch. Manly is typing on his cell phone like a court stenographer, calling lawyers across the country who have similar cases pending against the Catholic Church. "This is a new plateau, bro," Manly beams as he shares the news over the phone with a fellow Church-suing lawyer. "They have their unit in the grinder — and they're not going to be able to get out. "Now the government's going to have access to the personnel files," Manly tells an observer. "And that's what we want in the first place." The personnel files Manly refers to are those kept by all churches on their priests, documenting each cleric's life from ordination until death. In 2002, a Massachusetts court ordered the Boston Archdiocese to release personnel files of its priests at the request of individuals who claimed that Church officials had knowingly protected pedophilic priests. Subsequent revelations confirmed the allegations and led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, the arrests or defrocking of dozens of priests suspected of molesting children, and inspired sex-abuse victims across the country to publicly disclose their cases. Manly wants this, too. His firm is alone among those suing the Diocese of Orange in insisting that no settlement would be complete without the disclosure of those documents. Now with settlement talks over, Manly vows to stand with his clients and start filing individual lawsuits against the Orange diocese demanding the diocese make those personnel files public — "even," he fumes, "if it takes a lifetime." But as he gestures rapidly while using coarser language, something glimmers from inside his shirt. John Manly still wears it around his neck, although he doesn't know why: a silver medallion known as the Miraculous Cross featuring the Madonna with child on the front and the legend "I am a Catholic. Please Call a Priest" engraved on the back. It was a gift Manly received in second grade, around the time his family moved to Santa Ana from northern California during the early 1970s. And he's rarely gone a day without wearing it. It was with him while he served as an altar boy at St. Catherine's Military School in Anaheim, through attending Mater Dei High and USC, and during the entirety of the DiMaria case. Manly still keeps it on today, even as he finds himself comparing Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown to Judas. "Church officials go out and tell everyone that lawyers only want money," Manly says as he fingers the Miraculous Cross. "They treat the victims like enemies. Through my mid-30s, I perceived the Church in a Bells of St. Mary's way: going to Mass, saying the prayers, proud of being a Catholic. But it's not true. And it never was. I believe in Christ's message. But somewhere along the line, something went terribly wrong." When Manly says these words, a pained look passes over his otherwise-intimidating visage.

Thirty-eight years old, Manly is a big man: balding, a former Naval Reserve officer with the mouth to prove it, he stands taller than six feet and easily tips the scales at more than 230 pounds. But get him speaking about the Catholic Church, and sadness seeps in. Manly found it hard to believe the Church suffered from a molestation problem when he first heard DiMaria's story. And even after Manly helped DiMaria win his civil suit, even after Manly and DiMaria drafted the zero-tolerance policy Judge Gray imposed on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Orange Diocese, Manly stubbornly believed Harris was an anomaly. Manly even convinced his wife to convert to Catholicism in 2002, about a year after the Harris case. By then, Manly had returned to real-estate litigation. "I like doing real-estate law — I'm good at it," Manly remarks with a smile. "And it pays the bills." But the lifting of the statute of limitations by the California Legislature provoked a flurry of calls to Manly. He didn't know what to do. "I honestly had no clue as to how huge the problem was," he says. "I thought it was only Harris. Then [when Boston broke out] and people began calling, I thought it was a big problem, but not a pandemic. Then you make the connections and realize that it is a pandemic. Then you begin hearing the stories. The thing that bugs me the most is that most Catholics think it's just priests in a weak moment grabbing a butt or fondling a penis. It was more. "I was stupid," Manly concludes. "I really thought the Orange diocese was going to do something about sex-abuse cases."

Manly remembers a meeting in Orange County Superior Court shortly after DiMaria's settlement. Judge Gray had ordered the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange to offer DiMaria an apology in person. Representatives for Cardinal Roger Mahoney attended, as did Orange Bishop Jaime Soto and a brigade of lawyers for both diocese. But Bishop Tod D. Brown — leader of Orange County's 1.1 million Catholics — didn't appear as required. "He never even talked to Ryan's family, never sent a letter," Manly remarks. His eyes narrow. A melancholic anger shades him. "That does something to you." Manly never forgot that moment or forgave. And all the phone calls sparked something in him, a desire to seek justice against the institution that, until then, had been his only teacher about good and evil in the world. "You can't hear these stories and not get moved," Manly says. "If you don't feel empathy, then you're dead." Manly soon began filing suits — not just in Orange County, but also in San Diego, Wisconsin, Indiana and Arizona.

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