Spotlight and the role of lawyers

I’ve only seen one of the films nominated for an Oscar this season—Spotlight—and it has haunted me. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead, though the film is well worth viewing even knowing how it unfolds.)

This gripping film recounts the true story of Boston Globe editor Marty Baron’s decision to assign the newspaper’s “Spotlight” team of investigative reporters to examine sex abuse allegations against Catholic priest John Geoghan. The reporters’ interviews of victims and efforts to unseal sensitive court documents eventually led them to what we now know was an extensive cover-up of abuse by the Roman Catholic Church over many years involving not just Geoghan but thousands of priests. (The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service based upon this reporting.) The film features brilliant acting by Michael Keaton as editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, and Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, among others. Most intriguing to me, however, was the role of lawyers in the film, including Erik MacLeish, who represented numerous abuse victims in securing private settlements, and Jim Sullivan, who defended priests accused of abuse and was a long-time friend of Robby Robinson.

The film raises significant questions about legal ethics and personal morality. How do we reconcile the sanctity of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege against the moral dilemma of knowledge about a client’s outrageous acts? It is one thing to maintain confidentiality in representing someone accused of an isolated crime that occurred in the past, but what if a lawyer has information that could prevent hideous child abuse from occurring in the future?

Robinson repeatedly asks Sullivan to become a confidential source by confirming the names of child molesting priests as the Globe’s list of suspects grows. Sullivan struggles—the film captures this beautifully and painfully—then finally relents, confirming dozens of names on the Globe’s list.

MacLeish obtains settlements for hundreds of victims, all subject to strict confidentiality agreements. His work is critiqued by the reporters as essentially being a cottage industry at the expense of future victims, because the settlements prevent the abuse from becoming public. MacLeish maintains that the short statute of limitations and statutory cap on recovery made settlement the best possible outcome for his clients. Perhaps that is true for the individuals he represented; but what about the children who continued to be abused? Does settlement in a situation like this achieve justice or undermine it? (Read Owen Fiss’s Against Settlement for more on that topic.) Here again, MacLeish faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to reveal confidential information. We learn late in the film that he sent information to the Globe many years before the Spotlight investigation occurred; the Globe failed to follow up on it.

What is the role of lawyers in a massive abuse scandal of this nature? Should there be an exception to client confidentiality protections or attorney-client privilege? Does Model Rule 1.6’s exception for breaching confidentiality to prevent an act that is reasonably certain to result in substantial bodily harm apply here?

This article from the Globe’s Spotlight team reporting on the abuse scandal in 2002 offers some answers while at the same time raising even more questions:

“Plaintiff lawyers settle cases confidentially all the time,” said Paul J. Martinek, editor and publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, a professional journal. “But if you know your client’s been raped by a priest and you settle the case confidentially, knowing that the priest could go out and do it again, your hands aren’t entirely clean.”

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley has also had harsh words for some attorneys who represent victims of priests, saying in an interview that “the plaintiff lawyers bear some responsibility” for keeping abuse by priests out of the public eye by settling cases confidentially.

Looking back, silence has become hard to take

Boston attorney Laurence E. Hardoon, who took on his first clergy sex abuse client in 1992 and has since handled between 20 and 30 such cases, reflected on his role in this ugly chapter with a twinge of regret.

“If we had any inkling whatsoever of the magnitude of harm that was out there, maybe we, as a joint group of plaintiff lawyers, would have tried to encourage our clients to be outspoken in many cases,” said Hardoon, who formerly served as a Middlesex assistant district attorney. “It’s hard not to look back and say the greater good would really have been served by the lack of secrecy earlier on.”

Jeffrey A. Newman, of the Boston firm Newman & Ponsetto, has represented scores of alleged clergy sex abuse victims, and voiced a public mea culpa over his involvement in a handful of earlier cases that he settled secretly.

“Had I been more astute, I probably could have recognized the problems better,” Newman said. “I just never took the time to examine them closely enough.”

But MacLeish, Hardoon, Newman, and other plaintiff lawyers also say they were hamstrung by restrictive state laws that limited their ability to press charges against alleged offenders. They also blame legislators for failing, until recently, to require church officials to report suspected abuse. They and others have also pointed a finger at judges, prosecutors, and the press for being too deferential to the church over a long period of time.

They argue they were torn between their obligation to zealously represent their damaged clients, few of whom wanted their personal lives exposed in a courtroom, and the church’s reluctance to settle cases without confidentiality clauses. As a result, some legal experts say, secrecy was often the only option.

“If you can get $100,000 or $500,000 for your client and the price of that is silence, the lawyer’s sort of in a bind,” said Andrew L. Kaufman, who teaches ethics at Harvard Law School and sits on ethics committees for the Massachusetts Bar Association and Supreme Judicial Court.

“Ultimately, it’s the client who instructs the lawyer on whether to accept the offer,” Kaufman said. “And as long as a confidential settlement is lawful, sometimes a lawyer’s got no choice but to accept it.”

(Cross-posted at the Legal Ethics Forum)

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