Church Lawyer Cuts Low Profile in Settlement Talks

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press, carried in Providence Journal [Boston MA]
Downloaded September 7, 2003

BOSTON (AP) - Tom Hannigan isn't a backslapper or a loudmouth, a hard-liner or a shark. Instead, he is soft-spoken, unassuming, low-key and methodical.

But he's been thrust into the spotlight as the lead lawyer for the Boston Archdiocese as it seeks to settle more than 500 lawsuits accusing church leaders of trying to avoid scandal by shipping priests accused of sex abuse and other misdeeds from parish to parish.

Supporters say it's Hannigan's calm, steady approach that has moved the archdiocese closer to settling the cases.

"He can cut through a lot of the bluster and can get down to the nitty-gritty and see what unifying points, what common ground there is between his clients and the other side," said attorney Harvey Wolkoff, who has worked with Hannigan at Ropes & Gray for 22 years.

Hannigan was tapped for the job by newly installed Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who relied on his legal advice more than a decade ago as bishop of the Fall River Diocese when it was in the throes of a similar - though less widespread - scandal. Hannigan is credited with engineering a settlement for 101 victims of the Rev. James Porter in 1992.

O'Malley brought Hannigan into the Boston case immediately after he was named in July to succeed Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December after a year of damaging revelations about sexual abuse by priests and mismanagement by church leaders fixated on avoiding scandal by keeping allegations hush-hush.

A day after he was officially installed as Boston's new archbishop, O'Malley made Hannigan lead counsel to represent the archdiocese in talks aimed at reaching a settlement with victims. The move eased out the church's previous lead lawyers, who had until then been unable to settle the cases - and whose hardball tactics angered victims and their lawyers.

Attorney Paul V. Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Hannigan in the 1980s, calls Hannigan "the perfect lawyer to take on this massive problem."

"The bottom line is that he's a good strategist who understands complex legal matters and knows how to deal with them," Kelly said. "He's the type of person who will gather the facts and understand all the various circumstances and intricacies of the problem before he makes any judgments."

Hannigan, 51, is accustomed to handling complicated cases. He has spent the past 22 years working at Ropes & Gray, the largest law firm in Boston, where he has specialized in environmental litigation, and also worked on real estate, probate and antitrust cases.

Hannigan didn't start out as a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in chemical engineering, then worked for Pfizer Corp. for two years before going to Boston College Law School.

He said he was influenced by his father, an FBI agent whose job moved his young family around the country, including stints in Rochester, Minn., Albany, N.Y., and Concord, N.H.

But O'Malley clearly credits Hannigan for the successful settlement in the Porter cases. O'Malley called Hannigan into the current settlement talks even before he was officially installed as archbishop.

"He's very good at settling large group cases like this. Archbishop O'Malley felt it would be good to bring him in because of his expertise," said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese.

Lawyers who would normally be considered Hannigan's adversaries say he is somehow able to be a strong advocate and negotiator for his clients without stirring hostilities.

Victims' attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who sat on the opposite side of the negotiating table from Hannigan in the Porter cases, is once again sitting across from Hannigan in the current church settlement negotiations.

"Never once have we ever raised our voices to each other," said MacLeish. "Even if you're on the other side, there's nothing personal about it. He's very professional."

Hannigan is uncomfortable with such praise. His friends and co-workers say he is humble, even self-deprecating, and shuns the spotlight. He drives a Dodge Caravan, and lives in Needham with his wife, Cindy, and their three children.

Hannigan, who agreed to a brief interview with The Associated Press only after considerable prodding, would not discuss the current negotiations in the clergy lawsuits. But he said his approach to all negotiations is to listen to and keep both sides talking.

"I try to understand the other side's position and try to maintain cordial relations with counsel, to keep a dialogue open," he said. "I rely very heavily on good mediators, such as we have here (in the church case), and try to come up with solutions that meet everybody's needs to the extent possible."

John Robitaille, who was molested by Porter in the early 1960s, recalls being anxious that Hannigan would grill him during his deposition in 1992, when the church was facing more than 100 lawsuits.

Instead, Hannigan "treated me with dignity and even respect," Robitaille said. "He was not what I expected - he was a nice guy."

"We were all very fragile, not knowing what to expect. ... I think his approach tended to make it easier to be comfortable and to speak," Robitaille said. "I read him as being sincere. It might have been the strategy of a trained lawyer, but whatever it was, for me especially, it worked to put me in a position where I didn't feel I was on a hot seat."

Editor's Note: Denise Lavoie is a Boston-based reporter covering the courts and legal issues.


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