Putting his faith in justice
Greenfield lawyer represents alleged abuse
By DIANE BRONCACCIO
Greenfield, MA Recorder
January 29, 2004
GREENFIELD - In 1992, soon after a Shelburne Falls parish
priest pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five altar boys,
Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski heard from a Catholic
family who said Richard R. Lavigne had also molested their
"They knew I was a good Catholic, and they were still
committed to their religion, Stobierski said. "They
asked me, as a Catholic lawyer, to ask the diocese to pay
for their son's therapy, which the diocese did. They didn't
want to ruffle any feathers or press charges; they just wanted
After the church agreed to pay, Stobierski said he shoved
the case folder into a "dead records" storage room
filing cabinet "and just let it go."
But 10 years later, a statement made by the Springfield Diocese
prompted Stobierski to bring that folder back to life. In
response to questions about clergy sexual abuse after highly
publicized charges in the Boston Archdiocese, the Springfield
Diocese stated it had reported every victim of sexual abuse
to the proper authorities.
When Stobierski asked former Assistant District Attorney
David Angier if someone with the initials of the boy who received
therapy had ever been reported to the DA's office, Angier
told him the diocese had not reported receiving any further
complaints against Lavigne, beyond those for which he was
brought to trial.
"The incidents I had heard from that family had haunted
me for years," he said. "I always thought about
it, but I kept it to myself, as a lawyer is supposed to."
Stobierski said he was "livid" that his client's
charges had not been reported to the district attorney. When
Stobierski called the family and told them this, they met
with the lawyer, and with their son, who was then 22, decided
to file a lawsuit.
Since that first case in June 2002, Stobierski has filed
21 lawsuits against priests accused of sexual abuse and against
the diocese, on the grounds that church officials failed to
protect youths and children from predatory clergymen. Stobierski
said he is also working with another 17 alleged victims who
are contemplating lawsuits - 38 alleged victims altogether.
The lawyer says his clients include 18 men who say they were
abused by Lavigne and three women who say they were. All lived
in western Massachusetts at the time of these reported incidents.
"I never thought I would ever be doing this," Stobierski
said of the civil suits that have taken up much of his life
over the past two years. "As a lawyer, I never would
have imagined my life would take this kind of turn."
Stobierski said he "can't put a number" on how
many hours a week the cases take up, but says the work "permeates
my whole life."
"These are the kind of cases you take home. You get
calls from clients during the evenings and weekends,"
he said. "Much of the work is being done in what would
normally be time for myself and my family."
Stobierski said the workload has caused him to put aside
his involvement with the Franklin County Democratic League
and to temporarily shelve his weekly golf games with friends
and family during the summer.
"This has eaten into my family time. It's been all-consuming,
but it's been worth it, to know we've had an element of success
in having Lavigne defrocked," Stobierski said. "It's
a small but significant development in this process. It's
part of getting justice for these victims."
News of Lavigne's defrocking was announced this week.
As a trial lawyer, Stobierski has handled other high profile
and controversial cases in the region. In the early 1990s,
Stobierski represented Daniel S. Franklin in a standoff involving
war-tax resisters G. Randall Kehler and Betsy Corner. Franklin
had paid $5,400 for a Colrain house seized by the Internal
Revenue Service from Kehler and Corner for nonpayment of taxes.
The auction was contested by the land trust, which owned the
house lot, and the case received national headlines.
Stobierski also represented two Greenfield Department of
Public Works employees in a sexual harassment lawsuit against
the town, and won a $150,000 settlement for his clients.
Like the civil rights cases of the 1950s and 1960s, the hundreds
of clergy sexual abuse cases will bring significant changes
in society, Stobierski believes. "I think these cases
have already effected change and there will be a ripple effect
for a long, long time," he said. "The revelations
of the dioceses and their employees are opening many peoples'
eyes. It's going to make parents much more careful (of their
children) with adults in authority. It's a wake-up call to
Stobierskis own Catholic roots go deep. His great-grandfather
was a founding member of the Polish-American Citizens Club
of South Deerfield, which is where Polish Catholic masses
were held before the establishment of St. Stanislaus Church
in South Deerfield. Two sets of Stobierskis great-grandparents
were among the first members of the parish. Also, one set
paid for half of the church bell at St. Stan's.
Five generations of Stobierskis family have gone to
St. Stanislaus, including Stobierskis 11-year-old son
and 8-year-old twins. Stobierski was mostly educated in public
schools through Grade 8, although he attended a Catholic school
during the fifth grade, when his family was living in Georgia.
Stobierski attended Deerfield Academy from Grade 9 through
12. He has been a parish council member at St. Stan's and
a substitute catechism teacher. Stobierski says he still attends
weekly masses there.
"Personally, it's definitely affected my religious faith,"
he said of the sexual abuse cases. "It's a struggle to
continue to practice Catholicism. I've had to separate the
tenets of my religion from the leadership, because my investigation
of how things have been done are disturbing to me," he
said. "I think the Catholic Church has tried to uphold
its reputation and status in society by attempting to keep
quiet and put aside its problems and foibles. What it has
caused is this current crisis."
Stobierski, 43, notes he is about the same age as many of
the alleged victims he represents. "It's very easy for
me to relate to those who have been molested. I was never
molested," he remarked, "but when they talk about
what we were taught to think about priests, I know what they
mean, because I have been there."
When asked what other Catholics think of the work he's doing,
Stobierski said, "The vast majority of fellow Catholics
I run into are incredibly supportive. Even the most devout
Catholics want to know the truth. There is the rare person
offended by what I'm doing, but 80 to 90 percent want to talk
to me about it. The rank-and-file Catholics have issues with
"I think it's important, as well, that it's a Catholic
lawyer doing this, as opposed to someone outside the religion.
Because I'm not doing this to be a Catholic-basher,"
When asked how he can tell if an alleged victim is sincere,
Stobierski replied, "This is such a devastating experience
for most victims that, literally, you can see the patterns."
The patterns are what Stobierski calls "the grooming
processes" by which a pedophile wins a child's affection
before making the first sexual advances. For instance, victims
have reported their alleged abusers first lavished them with
attention, making them feel special before the inappropriate
touching began. Then the abuser may have threatened the victim
to keep them from telling anyone.
He said the interviews are emotionally taxing: Some people
start shaking as they describe what happened to them. Some
Stobierski said he looks for corroborating evidence in their
stories. For instance, victims of the same alleged perpetrator
may describe similar details of how they were molested or
of what was said to them during it. Stobierski said he and
lawyer Danielle Barshak interview the alleged victims together
and evaluate the merits of each case.
"I've asked pointed questions to people when I've interviewed
them. For many of the victims, I'm the first person they've
ever told this to," he said. "It's a profound experience.
It's a kind of experience that doesn't let me sleep at night.
And you feel like crying with them."
Stobierski said he knows of only one other lawyer in western
Massachusetts who is representing alleged victims in lawsuits
against the diocese. Stobierski said the work is difficult,
and since he is to be paid on a contingency basis, his law
office won't be compensated until the cases are tried or settled.
Besides compensation, Stobierski said his clients want "a
sincere apology" and assurances that the sexual abuse
"won't ever happen again." Stobierski said he also
hopes the legal action will help to restore their sense of
self-respect and dignity.
Stobierski said more attention should be given to the victims
of priest sexual abuse. "They're the ones who've been
through hell and back. And a lot are still going through hell."