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For accusers' attorney, case's high profile is a plus

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 9/24/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
t was July 1991 when Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. first met with Frank Fitzpatrick, a Rhode Island private detective, who said he and eight others had been molested as children in the 1960s by former Massachusetts priest James R. Porter.

MacLeish recalls being "absolutely overwhelmed" by their stories. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my God!' " said MacLeish, 39, a partner in the downtown law firm of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott. "If there are nine now, how many will there be if this ever gets out?"

To get his answer, he adopted classic MacLeish operating procedure. "The only way to find out," he said, "was to do all our homework, get all our facts straight. And make sure this gets out in the public eye."

It has. At the behest of Fitzpatrick, who urged him to make the case public, MacLeish orchestrated a series of interviews in which Porter's alleged victims described their experiences.

MacLeish now represents 70 men and women who claim Porter sexually abused them in three parishes in southeastern Massachusetts. A big payoff came Monday, when Porter was indicted by a Bristol County grand jury on 46 counts involving 32 victims.

Eric MacLeish is jubilant. While he is emphatic in crediting Fitzpatrick in bringing about the indictment, it's clear that he attributes at least a part of it to his unconventional approach -- being media-friendly to the max. Most attorneys are wary of taking their clients' cases to the public, especially in the early stages. But MacLeish -- a tenacious trial lawyer with political aspirations who is said to be happiest when snarling at the heels of tough adversaries while representing the disenfranchised -- contends that the most effective way to advance his clients' cause is to thrust them into the spotlight, as long as they are willing.

"I'm a great believer in the media," said MacLeish, the son of novelist and Monitor Broadcasting radio anchor Rod MacLeish, and grandnephew of Archibald MacLeish, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. MacLeish, in fact, recently joined the media, becoming the legal correspondent for New England Cable News.

"It makes it easier to accept a case if it is a case that has the potential to have a broad impact," said MacLeish, who avers he is not "a publicity hound. The ego rush of seeing my name in print is long gone."

This high-profile strategy has worked for him before. In the late 1980s, he successfully represented mentally ill Bridgewater State Hospital patients who alleged that hospital living conditions were deplorable.

His involvement in the case following the deaths of five patients -- and the resulting flood of national publicity -- led state officials to agree to stop public strip-searches of Bridgewater patients, halt seclusion of new admissions, and end the practice of sending all noncriminal patients to Bridgewater. "I saw the power of the press with Bridgewater," he said. "There were two things that helped us end the disgraceful practice of putting mentally ill men in jail. The lawsuit I filed, and two appearances on "Nightline."

Since then, his clients have included the Behavior Research Institute, a controversial Rhode Island-based school for autistic children; and handicapped children at the Crystal Springs School in Assonet and their parents, who filed a lawsuit to gain state funds for services after the youths turn 22.

Recently, he has acquired a reputation for representing victims of sexual abuse. He is close to completing negotiations in a settlement with the Fall River diocese on behalf of the 70 alleged Porter victims. His goal is to persuade church officials to "create a system in Massachusetts that ensures that the Porter tragedy can't ever happen again."

To some extent, MacLeish himself fuels the image of a man powered by an insatiable ego. A Newton alderman, he has been clear about his political aspirations, including a possible future run for Newton mayor. He was so willing to be interviewed for this article that he made an unsolicited hand- written list of 25 persons to interview. Divided into seven categories, the list included: judges; colleagues; opposing counsel; and people who don't like him.

"Every time I turn on the TV or radio, I hear Eric," said Mark White, a Boston lawyer and fellow Newton alderman who was listed under "people who don't like me." Maintaining that his differences with MacLeish are political, White acknowledged that "some people get really upset with some of the comments he makes because he comes across as arrogant and self-righteous."

It is not easy to know what fuels MacLeish's passion for being in the public eye. By all accounts he is a complex man. He can be aggressive and shrewd, not above playing one member of the media against another.

But he is eminently likable, and clearly compassionate, a man "with a heart," according to his secretary, Beth Anderson. "He is unique and you need to understand the uniqueness of Eric to not be offended," said Matthew McNamara, an associate.

He has garnered the respect of other partners in his office, among them Stephen R. Delinsky, Steven Pierce, the former House minority leader; and Robert Caporale, who represents the New Boston Garden Corporation on the new arena project.

"He really identifies with the underclass," said Delinsky, a former chief of the attorney general's criminal division. "A lot of the people he represents are not State Street clients. They are real underdogs. They are not people who will be able to say to him, 'You're a great lawyer, thank you.' "

Ironically MacLeish's privileged upbringing that is largely responsible, he believes, for his feelings for the unfortunate. When his father became London bureau chief for Westinghouse broadcasting, MacLeish, then 8, was sent to an English boarding school. He was miserable and felt alienated.

"I was the only American in an all-male boarding school of 120. No one talked to me for two years. They were very nasty to me. My stuffed bear was impaled on a light fixture. I was certainly the underdog there."

He said his strong feelings about the Porter case have also been driven at least partly by the the past. When he was a 15-year-old copy boy at a Washington all-news radio station, he was molested by a journalist who was a close friend.

It happened on a camping trip. "I was able to fight him off for the most part, and it doesn't compare with being raped on an altar, but it was such a massive betrayal of trust."

He emphasizes, however, that the attention he has drawn to the Porter case represents "no crusade. I'm not getting back at people because of what happened to me as a young man," he said. "There is no private vendetta going on here. Can you imagine the Father Porter story not coming out? Because nine courageous people came out publicly, now there are 70 people whose lives have been incredibly enriched because of all this attention. They all thought they would be suffering in silence."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 9/24/1992.
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