Academy Lawyers Frustrate Prosecutors

Author: Jay Weaver and David Green
Date Published: 04/28/2001

Holy Cross Academy’s insurance carrier has hired up to 14 lawyers to represent priests, novice monks, board members and a janitor at the school where a nun was slain last month – provoking accusations of a ”coverup” by frustrated prosecutors.

They say the lawyers have inhibited access to key witnesses by insisting they be subpoenaed and granted immunity before speaking to investigators.

”The people of the state of Florida, and even the defendant, deserve to get to the truth,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine said at a court hearing this week. ”We are seeking the truth. They are seeking to cover the truth.”

”These lawyers have done nothing but answer to this insurance company, which is calling the shots.”

The school’s attorneys, along with the Wisconsin insurance company that is paying their bills, said such a legal defense is standard operating procedure – especially for a case that has escalated beyond homicide.

Mykhaylo Kofel, a Ukrainian monastic student who confessed to killing Sister Michelle Lewis on March 25, has also accused two Holy Cross religious leaders of molesting him. He is the only person involved in the investigation – staff member or student – who is not represented by one of the insurer’s private attorneys. Kofel, 18, is represented by the Miami-Dade public defender’s office.

School representatives say they are not trying to hide anything from police and prosecutors. Rather, they say, they are protecting the rights of individuals whose interests might not jibe with those of prosecutors or Kofel’s public defender.

”The assistant state attorney has done nothing but say we’re obstructing, obstructing and obstructing,” said Joseph Blonsky, Holy Cross’ regular attorney and a board member.

”But it has become painfully clear from all the information that has come out that [Levine] is no longer concentrating on the murder and that she is concentrating on the investigation of the priests. With all this going on, it makes sense to have attorneys there in an abundance of caution.”

”For goodness’ sake, I have an attorney.”

The academy’s insurer, Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merrill, Wis., provides coverage for 80,000 religious institutions across the country – child-care centers, high schools, colleges and parochial schools.

It handles a spectrum of claims, from property damage to workers’ compensation. It also handles two or three claims of sexual misconduct a week, according to general counsel John Cleary.

”They may not always be allegations that involve clergy,” said Cleary. ”Sometimes it’s a teacher, sometimes a bus driver. We’re seeing more claims where one child has had sexual contact with another child.”

Whatever the nature of the claim, Cleary said, his company follows the same approach: First, it conducts its own investigation. Then, it hires a local lawyer, who is given an essentially unlimited budget in handling the matter and recruiting legal support.

Cleary would not comment on the Holy Cross case, but lawyers for the school have said the insurance company’s investigation found no corroboration for Kofel’s allegations – that Father Abbot Gregory Wendt and Father Damian Gibault molested him over the past four years. Both men have strongly denied those allegations.

The initial lawyer hired in the Holy Cross case was Peter Miller. He, in turn, hired roughly a dozen lawyers – for everyone from the school janitor to the elderly nun who lived in the convent with the slain nun.

Two well-known criminal defense attorneys, Mel Black and Richard Hersch, were brought in to represent Wendt and Gibault, respectively. More lawyers were hired for the four other Ukrainian monastic students at the school.

The legal expense is indicative of what Cleary described as Church Mutual’s overall strategy. Unlike some insurers that try to limit their expenses, Cleary said his company allows the local lawyer – who has developed a ”trustworthy” track record with Church Mutual – to spare no expense.

”It’s more efficient and economical to do it this way,” Cleary said. ”We think we probably spend less money in the long run to give attorneys we retain the authority to act as they see fit.”

But Levine and Assistant Public Defender Edith Georgi say the academy’s legal maneuvers are keeping both sides from determining whether sexual abuse occurred.

Earlier this week, the four Ukrainian monks were subpoenaed. They told prosecutors they were never abused, and were not aware of any molestation of Kofel, their lawyers told a judge.

Legal ethicists said that while the prosecutors and defense lawyers may be frustrated by the church lawyers’ actions, such defenses are typical at the early stages of such a high-profile criminal investigation.

They also said it was routine for the insuror to pay the bills of different attorneys representing individuals affiliated with the academy.

”The insurance company has to give every person their own attorney because what might be good for one client might not be good for another client,” said Nova Southeastern University Law Professor Robert Jarvis.

But those legal relationships can become tricky – and possibly conflicting. The Florida Bar requires lawyers to maintain loyalty to their clients, not to whoever pays the bills.

Attorney Jeanne Baker, who is representing one of the monastic students, said she did not see herself crossing that line.

”My loyalties are to my client,” said Baker, who has done criminal-defense work with the American Civil Liberties Union.

”I have no conflict. Otherwise I wouldn’t do this.”