The hole in the heart of a star
Eric MacLeish seemed everywhere at once as a lead lawyer for victims of clergy abuse. And then he was gone. This is the story of his hard fall and the long-buried pain he finally came to understand.
It was mid-2003, and Eric MacLeish was on fire.
As a lead attorney in the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, he was in the newspapers and on TV continually. Named one of the top trial lawyers in the country by the National Law Journal, MacLeish conducted a nine-day deposition of Cardinal Bernard Law that helped lead to Law’s resignation. He and others sued the archdiocese for the release of thousands of pages of secret files on abusive priests, which broke the story wide open. When the archdiocese agreed to an $85 million settlement with 550 abuse victims, MacLeish became a very rich man.
And then his world shifted.
In the fall of 2003, MacLeish was among the lawyers presenting hundreds of cases to arbitrators, who determined how much compensation each should receive. The very first case haunted him: a client who, as a 9-year-old boy, had been raped by the Rev. Bernard Lane at St. Anne Parish in Littleton, a priest who was accused of abusing many and was later dismissed from the priesthood.
“That boy buried his bloody underwear in the yard so his mother wouldn’t find out,’’ MacLeish says. Over the years, he’d heard plenty of shocking case descriptions and appalling details; this was not the worst. But that day the image of that boy’s lonely suffering triggered feelings he couldn’t quite explain; in the years ahead, it would follow him, break him, and change him.
“I began to become unglued,’’ is the way he puts it.
For the past six years, MacLeish has battled severe post-traumatic stress disorder that led him to give up the law practice he loved, get a divorce, leave Boston, and lie low in New Hampshire. When he finally figured out what was wrong with him, the pieces all fit and the memories crystallized: He himself had been sexually abused as a child.
The path from high-powered litigator to low-key professor was paved with flashbacks, nausea, insomnia, and a 40-pound weight loss. There were days when he could not get out of bed. Doctors told him the debilitating stress symptoms were “vicarious,’’ that he had absorbed the pain of his clients to a crippling extent.
In May 2004 MacLeish got on his BMW motorcycle and rode across the country to deliver a speech in Santa Monica, Calif.; he drove 700 miles the first day. “I was absolutely filled with this malignant despair,’’ he says. That summer, he climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest with his teenage daughter. He and his family spent time at a dude ranch in Colorado.
But he could not bear to be in Boston, could not drive past a church. He lived in a pop-up trailer on his in-laws’ lawn in Westport. A few times, he tried going in to his office. “I remember sitting there and I had images of this kid being raped repeatedly in the parish in Littleton. I went into the bathroom, and I just threw up. I was always nauseous. I couldn’t do any work.’’
His law partner, Jeffrey Newman, worked closely with him for two years. As 2003 wound down, Newman had noticed a change. “At the tail end of arbitrations, Eric had these feelings of anxiety coming into the office,’’ Newman says. “And that was different. Eric rarely wasn’t in the office.’’
During an interview at his Plymouth State office, MacLeish, 57, pulls up his shirt to reveal rows of faint horizontal scars that line his back. “The headmaster was sadistic and caned us,’’ he says.
When he was 13, his father was transferred back to Washington, D.C., and MacLeish put Vinehall behind him, or so he thought. Forty years later, in September 2004 — after the story of Lane’s victim had rekindled his own memories of abuse — he decided to clean out some closets in his Newton home. He was astonished at what he found: a packet of letters his mother had saved — some he’d written her from boarding school, and one the wife of the headmaster had written to her.
From his letters, the child’s pain and loneliness are evident: “Dear Mum and Dad, That’s a terrible long time to go till the end of term, 109 hours, 33 minutes and 27 seconds from now.’’ “Do you think you could get Dad to come down next time, because Mrs. Gilbert has something very important to tell him?’’ “I’m sorry I’m back in the [infirmary] but I really couldn’t help it.’’
But to MacLeish, it was a letter written on June 3, 1964, from the headmaster’s wife, Pat Taylor, to his mother that was most revealing. Taylor wrote of some physical issues young Eric was having and then added: “We have had nearly 48 hours now without sight or sound of the man and we hope he’s gone for good.’’
To MacLeish, the cryptic words were confirmation of his childhood memories. He thinks the letter offers veiled references to a sexually abusive scoutmaster in charge of a school-sponsored troop, a man he remembers being alone with on some Saturday and Sunday afternoons, in the woods.
The former headmaster and his wife are deceased, as are both of MacLeish’s parents. Vinehall officials did not return the Globe’s phone calls and e-mails, and MacLeish doesn’t know whether the teacher is still alive.
He did try to piece it together. In 2005, MacLeish says, he contacted Vinehall’s head, who told him that Vinehall was now a “Christian school.’’ MacLeish wanted to track down classmates, but there was no alumni association or alumni records. Ultimately, he says, he heard from the school’s lawyer, who told him that the people he inquired about “were either dead, handicapped or did not wish to see me.’’ Local police told him they couldn’t investigate a 40-year-old claim.
Vinehall wasn’t MacLeish’s only encounter with sexual predators, he says. In the early 1990s, when he was handling the notorious sexual assault cases involving the Rev. James Porter in Fall River, he was asked by a reporter if he himself had ever been assaulted and, if so, was that his impetus in taking on these cases? MacLeish responded that he had been assaulted by a much-older friend on a camping trip when he was a 15-year-old copy boy at a Washington radio station. And no, he wasn’t on a “crusade’’ because of it.
Today, he has a different opinion. “I never forgot what happened to me as a younger child, but I didn’t place any significance on it, which was totally irrational,’’ he says. “I thought what happened to me is nothing compared to what happened in the priest cases. I was doing OK. I was a good lawyer. I had no drug or alcohol problem. I had a wife and kids.’’
As for his passion for the sex abuse cases, he adds: “In retrospect, it’s totally clear why I was doing this work, representing the powerless.’’
Even before his unraveling, when he was a star, MacLeish struggled with self-esteem. “There was a veneer that everything was fine,’’ he says. “But underneath there was incredible sadness.’’
For a long time, he stayed a step ahead of the demons by staying busy. At the Head of the Charles regatta in October 2001, MacLeish met Teresa Mathai, whose husband, Joseph, was killed in the World Trade Center. Her son went to school with his daughter, and MacLeish asked the traumatized widow what he could do.
“She took a letter from her purse and said, ‘Can you help me with this?’ ’’ Her husband had died without a will. MacLeish didn’t do probate work but got a colleague to pitch in.
Ultimately, he assembled a group of people who wrote grant applications and raised millions of dollars from the business community, hired staff and tracked down the 200 Massachusetts families who had lost loved ones.
The Massachusetts 9/11 Fund was born, with MacLeish its first president and chairman. The nonprofit brought in financial planners and therapists, organized family events, and raised $640,000 from “United We Stand’’ license plates, using some of the money to build a memorial in the Boston Public Garden. MacLeish invited the families down to his in-laws’ beach house to visit with his girls. All the while, he was working double shifts; by day, on the priest cases, by night, on the Fund. It was exhausting but exhilarating.
But by the fall of 2004, MacLeish was just trying to get through the day. Flashbacks would appear with no warning. He could no longer coach his daughters’ softball and soccer teams. He couldn’t sleep, but he couldn’t get out of bed. “I was completely immobilized,’’ he says.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, psychiatrists recommended he be treated for PTSD, as either an inpatient at McLean Hospital in Belmont or a five-day-a-week outpatient at MGH. MacLeish refused; he did not want to be institutionalized, or treated in the Boston area. He had, by this time, moved into the family’s condo at Waterville Valley. Eventually, he wrote friends a letter, describing what had happened to him.
Jeff Newman was stunned: “During the cases, he never said a word. I think there’s no question Eric had a significant psychological break.’’
“I was extremely sick, completely depressed. . . . I thought this woman was saving my life,’’ he says of O’Neill. “It seems inconceivable now that I could be so stupid.’’
That spring, he tried briefly to return to his law practice. Sometimes he’d drive in only to turn around and retreat to New Hampshire. Once, he parked for a meeting of the Mass. 9/11 Fund, but couldn’t get out of his car. He’d make dates with friends, only to cancel.
Though he and his wife had already been in counseling, MacLeish says the relationship with his therapist led to their divorce, finalized in 2008. “The last thing I had on my mind was taking up with another woman,’’ he says. “I just wanted to get help. Enormous damage was done. My former wife is a good and decent person, and none of this was her fault. My kids were extremely traumatized by it.’’
A therapist friend told him to end the relationship with O’Neill, that it was unhealthy and broke all the professional rules for therapists. In summer of 2006, he says, he ended it. Other mental health counselors encouraged him to file a complaint against her, he says. Massachusetts licensing rules strictly prohibit sexual relationships between therapists and clients, as does the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics.
In January 2009, MacLeish filed a complaint against O’Neill with the state. Nine days ago, the Board of Registration of Psychologists voted unanimously to revoke O’Neill’s license, saying she was guilty of “gross misconduct.’’ It was an unusual move; 388 complaints have been filed against psychologists since 2001, and only 10 have lost their licenses.
O’Neill declined to speak with the Globe. She had testified that she stopped treating MacLeish after the relationship began; still, such affairs are prohibited within two years of treatment. And MacLeish said there was never a formal termination of treatment, that in fact she continued to treat him during the relationship.
Dr. Laurie Reed, who has been MacLeish’s psychiatrist for the past two and a half years, says his relationship with O’Neill was a huge setback that retriggered his PTSD.
“Not only did that damage him, but he lost his marriage as well,’’ says Reed, who spoke to the Globe at MacLeish’s request. “I think he is much improved, but I think this is something he will carry with him the rest of his life.’’
“I was lucky,’’ he says. “I have friends, a good therapist now. I lead a happy, hopefully productive life. I love my kids. A lot of people don’t end up that way.’’ MacLeish enjoys his students at Plymouth State, where he has taught civil liberties and criminal justice for four years.
Still, the clergy cases are always with him. In 2008 MacLeish received the Champion of Justice Award from the National Crime Victims Bar Association for his work on clergy sex abuse. Recently, with priest abuse back in the news, reporters have been calling him again. Though he returned none of the calls, MacLeish still gets exercised on the issue. “I think the work we did in Boston helped set the stage for real reform for children within the Catholic Church,’’ he says, “and I feel real proud of that.’’
He says he may start a nonprofit made up of retired lawyers in his neck of New Hampshire to provide legal services to working folks. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever return to the courtroom that once held such allure.
“I need to be peaceful,’’ he says. “I need to be non-adversarial. I fell pretty far, but I am in a good place now.’’
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story misidentified the parish where the Rev. Bernard Lane was accused of abusing boys. It was St. Anne Parish in Littleton.