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Spotlight Report

Cardinal Law's attorney, the low-profile Wilson Rogers, faces some high-profile cases

By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff, 2/14/2002

Wilson Rogers Jr. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

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Alleged victims turn to lawyer

One autumn morning, at 155 Franklin St. in downtown Boston, the elevator opens at the 16th floor and out step two men who walk down the hall to the Office of Commonwealth Mediation. One is attorney Bob Sherman, and the other his client, a middle- aged man who is well aware that he's walking into his personal hell.

He is about to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. He is about to confront the Archdiocese of Boston. He is about to describe his most humiliating ordeal and to accuse a Catholic priest of sexually molesting him as a teenage altar boy.

Inside, he is introduced to a mediator chosen by the lawyers. The mood is somber, the moments drag. Suddenly, the door opens and in walks a distinguished man, Wilson Rogers Jr., tall, graying, meticulously dressed and, in his role as attorney for the Archdiocese of Boston, prepared once again to defend the church against a charge of pedophilia.

Setting his briefcase on the table, Rogers nods to Sherman, of the firm of Greenberg Trauig, then walks directly to the victim. He extends his hand and introduces himself in a manner warm and sincere and not at all threatening.

At a credenza, the men pour coffee or water, then seat themselves at the table in a familiar routine recalled by Sherman. This particular case played out several years ago, but it has been replicated, scene by scene and almost word for word, in recent months, in the raft of mediation cases involving sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

On this day, on one side of the table are Sherman and the victim. On the other, Rogers and an attorney representing the priest. In the middle is the mediator, who explains that the goal is to resolve the issue without litigation, that no party is under obligation to settle, and, in any case, that the proceedings are confidential.

Sherman sets out the legal case. He takes only 10 minutes so as not to dilute the more powerful testimony by the victim. For the next half hour, under guidance by Sherman, the victim describes the details of the sexual encounters and their devastating impact on his life.

A box of tissues is on the table, because few men make it through without weeping.

While the victim talks, as Sherman recalls, Rogers listens intently, hands folded, never distracted, never glancing away, never fiddling with pen or paper. After the story is told, as in other cases where there seems no doubt about veracity, Rogers responds not to the mediator nor to opposing counsel but to the victim himself, conceding the truth, acknowledging the pain. He explains further that as counsel for the church, he wants to negotiate a settlement.

The parties then retreat to separate rooms, and for several hours or sometimes a full day, the mediator shuttles from one room to the other in an effort to broker a settlement that may involve hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Among the most pivotal and least known players in these painful dramas has been Rogers, 60, general counsel to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston since 1984 and personal counsel to Cardinal Law.

Although Rogers's office is located in the heart of Boston, at 1 Union St. above the Purple Shamrock; although he was born, reared, and educated in Boston; although he has practiced law in Boston for more than 30 years; and although he represents one of Boston's most powerful institutions, Rogers is a man most remarkable for how little is known about him and how few profess to know him well. He guards his privacy, and that of his clients, zealously. He declined repeated requests, by phone and e-mail, to be interviewed or photographed for this story. Colleagues speak admiringly about his personal character and professional competence but know little about his private life.

''He's very well regarded,'' says attorney Tim O'Neill, who has worked with Rogers defending physicians in malpractice cases. ''In court he's excellent, a man of his word, very straight in what he says and does.''

Rogers is lauded for fair play, even by opposing counsel.

''There's no bull about him,'' says attorney Jeffrey Newman, who negotiates with Rogers on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by priests. ''Some people have a personality contrived to fit a client, but Will Rogers never poses, and in the legal field, that makes him unique.''

Sherman, too, has studied him in settings that are antagonistic and emotional.

''I've seen an evolution in Will Rogers,'' he says. ''In the beginning, like many people, Will was skeptical of these claims, but he has come to realize these are legitimate claims of sexual abuse. Will strikes a balance between representing his client vigorously and not re-victimizing the victims of sexual abuse. When he knows the accusations are true, he expresses empathy, acknowledgment, validation. But I see the pain in Will's eyes. He's a devout Catholic, and this has torn him apart. You cannot sit through what Will has sat through and not have it affect you. You go home. You look at your children, and it affects your view of the world.''

Rogers was born in Boston on June 20, 1941. He graduated from Boston College in 1963 and from its law school in 1966. Two sons work at his law firm: Wilson Rogers III and Mark Rogers.

On its Web site, The Rogers Law Firm describes itself as a seven-person operation involved in general practice, insurance defense, medical malpractice defense, and corporate and health law. Among archdiocesan clients listed, in addition to the archbishop of Boston, are the Caritas Christi Health Care System, St. Elizabeth's Medical Center of Boston, and the Carney Hospital.

Beyond that raw data, however, information about Rogers is sparse. In his college yearbook, under his photograph, it says only that he majored in economics.

So successful has Rogers been in avoiding the press that he is rarely featured in news accounts and never quoted. He declines all interviews. One reporter called the Rogers home in Weymouth, and when the reporter identified himself, the connection was severed.

''He is a capable gentleman, but very private,'' says Roderick MacLeish, another lawyer who deals with Rogers in cases of sexual abuse. ''I like to chat with opposing counsel, ask about their kids, but with Will, it has never seemed appropriate to share anything on a personal level.''

In 35 years of practicing law, Rogers may well have spoken to the press about a case only once. That contact occurred not in an interview but in a letter to the editor of The Pilot, which is published by his client, the archdiocese.

''Not only have I always declined to speak to the press about pending litigation,'' he wrote to The Pilot last summer, ''I have also consistently counseled my clients not to speak to the media about such matters.''

And until the eve of the first criminal molestation trial involving John Geoghan, Rogers's principal client, Cardinal Law, followed that advice. On Jan. 4, a spokesman for the church told the Globe Spotlight team that the archdiocese would provide no answers and, indeed, had no interest in hearing any questions.

Then the dam broke. On Jan. 9, after the publication of the Spotlight report and just days before Geoghan's first criminal trial, the cardinal offered a public expression of apology and remorse, outlined a new policy on how the diocese would deal with pedophile priests, and took questions from reporters.

In his letter last summer to The Pilot, Rogers not only described his own philosophy on media contacts, he also excoriated the opposing counsel in many of the molestation cases, Mitchell Garabedian, for not following suit.

''Mr. Garabedian's practice appears to be to speak to the media on a periodic basis setting forth only selective facts which unfairly depict the Church and/or His Eminence Cardinal Law,'' he wrote.

''Mr. Garabedian ... has never once mentioned that each assignment of John Geoghan, subsequent to the first complaint of sexual misconduct, was incident to an independent medical evaluation advising that such assignment was appropriate and safe. To suggest or infer that Cardinal Law assigned John Geoghan without regard for the safety of those to whom John Geoghan would minister, in my opinion, constitutes an irresponsible misrepresentation of the underlying facts.''

Rogers was referring to medical opinions on Geoghan sought by the archdiocese from Dr. Robert W. Mullins and Dr. John H. Brennan. A Spotlight report last month showed Mullins to be a general practitioner without expertise in psychiatric issues and that Brennan, while a psychiatrist, had no background in treating sex offenders.

Some who have followed the case think that Rogers's appetite for privacy, his avoidance of public comment, and his advice that his client follow suit, have not always served Cardinal Law well. ''To say that the church's response to these horrid events has been a public relations disaster is an understatement,'' says Tobe Berkowitz, a professor of speech and communication at Boston University.

Rogers's silence, colleagues say, has also left him open to attacks that are not always fair.

''It pains me to read stories that cast aspersions on Will Rogers,'' says Sherman. ''He has a difficult client to represent, and he is interested in getting to the truth. From where I sit, the manner in which Will has conducted himself has been instrumental in allowing these victims of sex abuse to reach closure, and for that, I admire him.''

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