Clergy Abuse Lawyer Fighting Disbarment
John Aretakis Says Action by Legal Oversight Panel Is Attempt to Silence Him
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
November 22, 2004
ALBANY -- The state Committee on Professional Standards, which oversees lawyers, has asked a midlevel appeals court to disbar attorney John Aretakis.
The Manhattan resident, who also maintains a North Greenbush home, says he faces close to 15 complaints that have been filed with the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.More than half of them are from the Committee on Professional Standards, which made the disbarment request Sept. 30, he said.
Aretakis, who has represented many alleged victims of clergy sex abuse, has waged a vitriolic two-year battle with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
Among his claims are that Bishop Howard Hubbard and his predecessors knowingly protected pedophile priests at the expense of victims.
Several of the complaints claiming unethical behavior were filed by Hubbard's top aide, the Rev. Kenneth Doyle; a Catholic nun, Sister Anne Bryan Smollin; and the Rev. Carl Urban of Schenectady, who most recently claimed Aretakis libeled him during a speech last fall.
In his response to the charges against him, Aretakis claims that the committee's chief counsel, Mark Ochs, filed the disbarment complaint -- and has targeted him for discipline -- because he is "a tool of the bishop."
"He is using taxpayer money and valuable resources ... to limit my speech and shut down the only person in New York state speaking out on, and successfully suing, the Catholic church."
Ochs had no comment when reached Friday. The committee is bound to confidentiality in attorney discipline cases.
Aretakis wants the matter transferred to Manhattan, where his law practice is located and where he said he has a better chance of obtaining justice.
"My motion is based on allegations of an appearance of partiality by the committee and this court, including that the complainant Doyle and ... Ochs, were law school friends and classmates; that the church's principal lawyer, Michael Costello, was a member of the Third Department Character and Fitness Committee; and that Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Albany diocese has long-standing personal connections with members of the Third Department judiciary, including justices of this Court," he said in court papers.
Among the complaints Aretakis faces is that he wrongly released details of the cases against him to the media when he knew he was bound by confidentiality.
Ochs has said in the past that any attorney in such a situation can only speak freely after obtaining express permission from the court. He has never commented personally on any of the complaints against Aretakis.
Aretakis, on the other hand, claims a Court of Appeals interpretation of Section 90(10), called the Matter of Capoccia, allowed him to make public disclosures.
"Nowhere does it state, clearly or otherwise, that an attorney must wait and remain silent while this or any other Appellate Division court decides whether to grant a waiver of confidentiality," Aretakis said in court papers. "Nor does the decision state that the committee must have an 'opportunity to be heard' before a waiver can become effective."
"To the contrary," he continued. "The Court of Appeals clearly held that 'in the absence of' a determination that a proceeding should be closed, a disciplinary proceeding must be open when a waiver is duly executed and submitted."
Aretakis said he clearly waived confidentiality: "According to Ochs, my crimes are speaking out on behalf of victims of clergy sex abuse."
To bolster his case, Aretakis has supplied the court with affidavits from three former members of the First Department's disciplinary committee -- Richard M. Maltz, Howard Benjamin and Deborah A. Scalise -- who said attorneys have the right to speak out as soon as they submit a written waiver, which Aretakis did.
He said that if he is disbarred, he'll take the case, which he says violates his constitutional rights, to the state Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I have the feeling they think by silencing me, they'll silence the movement," Aretakis said. "But that's not going to happen."
In court papers obtained by the Times Union, Michael Gaynor, another Committee on Professional Standards attorney, urged rejection of Aretakis' request to move his case downstate "since the conduct which is the subject of the Petition of Charges occurred (here.)"
Gaynor said Aretakis' claim he is free to release complaints against himself "presumptuous," and something that "flies in the face" of the Capoccia ruling.
"Clearly, the Court of Appeals has indicated there may be reasons why a disciplinary proceeding, and by implication a disciplinary complaint, should remain confidential," Gaynor wrote. "Respondent's argument, if credited, has the effect of usurping the authority of this court."
Nothing in Capoccia says an attorney can unilaterally disclose a confidential inquiry, Gaynor stressed. And Aretakis submitted nothing to support his claim that the judiciary law has violated his First Amendment rights, he said.
Aretakis said he represents 100 victims of clergy sex abuse in the Albany area and another 50 around the state.
He said he believes the Albany diocese is actively attempting "to obfuscate and conceal" abusive conduct by its clergy.
"I consider these complaints to be part of an ongoing effort by the church to chill my advocacy and sap my personal and business resources," he said, claiming to have spent more than $500,000 in time and resources fighting such allegations. "I further believe that the committee has permitted itself to become a party to this improper and ill-motivated effort by allowing the church to use its offices to prosecute what are essentially private (and meritless) claims of libel and slander."
Late Friday, Aretakis filed a Notice of Claim against Ochs, his Deputy Chief Attorney Michael Philip Jr. and the oversight committee as a whole. He also submitted a Freedom of Information request for every document or record that has anything at all to do with his case.
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