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Spotlight Report

Victims of alleged sexual abuse by priests turn to Mitchell Garabedian

By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 2/14/2002

Mitchell Garabedian (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

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Law's attorney in the spotlight

The trappings of power are nowhere evident in Mitchell Garabedian's law office, where the elevator opens onto a tired carpet that shares space with cardboard boxes and newspapers piled several feet high.

Nor is Garabedian himself an outwardly imposing figure. Wiry and intense, by turns terse and expansive, he sometimes seems like someone still adjusting to the spotlight. He says, and friends confirm, that when he leaves his drab office and walks through downtown Boston, cab drivers and homeless people greet him by name - more than a few were clients as he was building his practice. Yet within the legal community he's been a part of for two decades, his profile has been low - ''not one of your more well-known trial lawyers,'' in the words of one prominent attorney.

Until now: There isn't a lawyer in town handling a more explosive case than the nationally publicized child-molestation lawsuits that Garabedian has spearheaded against former priest John J. Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston. As the case snowballed into allegations that scores of other priests also committed sexual abuse against children in recent decades, the church has been severely shaken, and Cardinal Bernard Law has been thrust into a potentially defining crisis.

It is a crisis that has also defined Mitchell Garabedian. For eight years, he has been consumed by cases involving Geoghan and other priests alleged to have sexually abused children. ''I'm still amazed at what I've found out,'' said Garabedian, 50, during an interview in his office. ''The very institution that is supposed to protect people allowed them to be ravaged. ... How could the church leaders allow this to happen?''

The trail leading to that question began in 1994 when a woman walked into Garabedian's office and asked: ''Will you listen to my three children? They have a story to tell.'' The tale that poured forth was one of alleged sexual abuse by a trusted priest. According to Garabedian, one of the victims was still so traumatized that he compulsively washed his hands, over and over, until they bled.

As word spread that the attorney was willing to take on these cases, other victims told their own stories of alleged sexual abuse by Geoghan. Eventually, Garabedian would represent 118 alleged victims of Geoghan; 84 civil suits are still pending. He estimates that he and another member of his firm, William H. Gordon, have spent thousands of hours on the litigation. There has been no letup, not even during the stretch in 1996 when Garabedian was treated for kidney cancer. ''You become totally absorbed in a matter like this,'' he said, ''and you don't have time to do other things with friends and family.''

Before he undertook the litigation, Garabedian viewed the Catholic church as ''a substantially fine institution.'' Even now, he acknowledges that the church ''does a lot of good things.'' But he has come to believe ''it had a subculture of evil that had to be cured.''

In the beginning, there were some phone calls from area Catholics angry at Garabedian, but those have dwindled of late. However, his outspokenness has drawn harsh criticism from Wilson Rogers Jr., the attorney for the archdiocese, who wrote a letter last July to the archdiocesan newspaper The Pilot accusing Garabedian of ''inappropriate and unfair use of the media.''

Though Garabedian calls Rogers ''very professional,'' he says the complaints outlined in the letter were ''absolutely ridiculous.'' The public ''has a full right to know what is going on with cases like these ... After all, it was secrecy by Father Geoghan and the archdiocese which substantially assisted in allowing many children to be sexually molested.''

As part of a contingency arrangement, Garabedian's firm has worked on the cases on the understanding that he will receive nothing up front, but one-third of the money from any settlement. Already, the archdiocese has settled claims from 50 alleged victims of Geoghan - most represented by Garabedian - at a reported cost of $10 million. Garabedian grew vehement when asked about the perception by some members of the public that when attorneys sue large institutions like the Catholic Church, the primary motive is financial. ''Come to work with me for a week, just one week,'' he said. ''See the hours involved, the emotions involved ... How could anybody say that? Follow me for a week. This is tragedy.''

The emphasis he puts on that final word seems born not of the calculation and compromise of a lawyer's life, but of the contrast between the victims' lot and Garabedian's own upbringing, which he idealizes as the way childhood should be.

The second of three children, Garabedian grew up on a 375-acre farm in Methuen owned by his parents, Marsoob and Juyard Garabedian (known as Martin and Violet). His family was active in the Armenian Apostolic Church in Lawrence. From an early age, Garabedian got up at 5 a.m. each day to help with farm chores. He would often ride with his father to deliver the vegetables to markets in Boston and Connecticut.

He also remembers carefree days of fishing and swimming in ponds on their sprawling property, or going to family picnics at Juniper Park, where dozens of relatives and members of the area's tight-knit Armenian community would gather. ''We were just happy,'' he said.

''He was a real farm kid,'' said Glen Kachadorian, a 52-year-old contractor in Jamaica Plain and a longtime friend of Garabedian. ''He used to drive the tractors and pick the lettuce. It was like Mayberry. As Mitch gets older, he reminds me: `Glen, we were so lucky. There was no abuse, no divorce, no horrors.'''

Garabedian, who lives in Boston and is unmarried, said he feels ''very fortunate when I compare my childhood with the childhood of these [victims].'' That feeling is part of what made him take on the Geoghan cases, he said.

This isn't to say, however, that his legal career has always put him on the side of the children. Fourteen years ago, Garabedian was part of a legal team that won a new trial for a Shutesbury man who had earlier been convicted of raping his two daughters, then ages 6 and 7. The legal team successfully argued that the conviction should be set aside because the children had been allowed to testify by closed-circuit television rather than in the courtroom. During the Globe interview, Garabedian insisted there is no contradiction between his actions then and now. ''There was an important constitutional issue in that [1988] case, the constitutional right to confront your accuser,'' he said.

And though he now maintains that cases of clergy sexual abuse ''should not be kept secret because they foster more secrecy,'' Garabedian acknowledged that some of the out-of-court settlements related to Geoghan have included confidentiality agreements because his clients wanted the matter kept secret.

The confidential agreements were reached, he pointed out, after Geoghan had been defrocked.

Garabedian was the first member of his family to attend college. After graduating from Methuen's Tenney High School in 1969, Garabedian enrolled at Boston University, and the ''farm kid'' fell in love with the city's diversity and energy. ''There was a little bit of culture shock but a whole lot of attraction,'' he said. After BU, he earned a master's degree in political science from Northeastern University, but his career path was far from settled. He worked as a cab driver for a year. Finally resolved to be a lawyer, he applied to only one law school, the New England School of Law. ''It was a nuts-and-bolts school, which is what I wanted,'' said Garabedian.

Any vestige of the drifting student would soon disappear. During his last year in law school, Garabedian was struck by a car while jogging and injured so badly he spent a week in a coma. Over the next two years, he underwent 22 operations to repair damage to his face, hands, and knees. ''When he came out of that he was changed,'' said Kachadorian. ''He was a smart guy to begin with, but he was Mr. Focus now.''

Upon admission to the bar in 1979, Garabedian hung out his shingle at a $350-a-month office on School Street and began the unglamorous work of building a general practice. He handled divorce, immigration issues, bankruptcies, minor criminal matters, personal injury cases. If a homeless or disabled person was denied benefits, Garabedian often got the call.

Seldom were Garabedian's cases in the headlines, though there were exceptions. In the mid-1980s Garabedian represented two foster parents in Dorchester in a yearlong battle with the state, which sought to remove from their custody the 4-year-old boy they'd cared for since shortly after his birth. The state finally agreed the couple could adopt the child.

In 1999, Garabedian won financial settlements from the city of Boston for two disabled city employees who had been fired for living in the suburbs in violation of Boston's residency requirement. One of them, Michael Sheehan, who is blind, praised Garabedian's tenacity. ''He's not afraid of going after the big guns,'' said Sheehan.

Such cases may be rare for Garabedian from now on, since, he acknowledges, child-molestation cases are going to define his practice for the foreseeable future. There is the likelihood of great financial rewards, but money, he says, is not what drives him.

''How could I not help them?'' he said, his voice rising. ''What's the point of being a lawyer, of being a human being, if you can't help these people?''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 2/14/2002.
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