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Putting his faith in justice
Greenfield lawyer represents alleged abuse victims

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 son.

"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 help."

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 parents."

Catholic roots

Stobierski’s 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 Stobierski’s 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 Stobierski’s family have gone to St. Stanislaus, including Stobierski’s 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 this.

"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," he said.

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 cry.

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."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests