Law and Orders

Author: Molly Moorhead
Date Published: 10/23/2004
The attorney at law is now a man of the cloth, too, and Joseph Ciarciaglino rejects any insinuation of conflict.
The attorney at law is now a man of the cloth, too, and Joseph Ciarciaglino rejects any insinuation of conflict. "Why should there be jobs that Christians can't do?" he asks.

SAFETY HARBOR — Before a row of holy men draped in glittering vestments, the archbishop sings his declaration in Greek.

“Axios,” meaning, “He is worthy.”

Joseph Ciarciaglino, a lawyer with a bulldog reputation, is worthy of the priesthood in the Orthodox Church in America.

The clergy, then the congregation, affirm back in song.

The ordination lasts nearly three hours. Incense vapors fill the sanctuary at Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, which is a small, converted house in Safety Harbor. Gathered for Ciarciaglino’s ordination are 17 clergy members who move about the room in practiced ritual, holding Bibles and jeweled crucifixes. The entire liturgy is sung.

Dmitri, the archbishop of Dallas and the Diocese of the South, is at the center. Again and again, the other priests kiss his hands to show reverence and submission. Before accepting Communion, the congregants do the same.

At the moment of his ordination, Ciarciaglino (see-AR-sa-LEEN-o) is kneeling at the side of the altar.

“Elevate through the laying on of hands, Joseph, the most devout deacon,” Dmitri says, blessing a man who for more than 30 years has stood in courtrooms doggedly defending public officials, cops and even priests accused of sex crimes.

His St. Petersburg law office overlooking Mirror Lake bears the trappings of his secular life. A wall covered in framed certificates. A rug from a bear that he bagged himself. Books on fly-fishing. A framed St. Petersburg Times front page pictures him and tells the story of his most famous case, the 1987 trial of firefighter George Lewis, who was convicted of raping and murdering a Gulfport woman.

Ciarciaglino, 59, recently returned from a monthlong trip through Asia. He set off alone to fish in Mongolia, then met his wife, Jeanne, to tour Japan and China. The short beard on his face is a souvenir.

God has been good to Ciarciaglino, by his own assessment. He came from modest means in upstate New York. After law school at Stetson University, he built a successful career that now allows him to turn away clients when he doesn’t see a good fit. He was able to put his daughter, Ann-Marie White, through prep school, then college at Villanova. He has traveled all over the world.

Second only to his religious faith, he is a believer in the law.

“The only thing I ever wanted to be was a trial lawyer,” he says. “I liked the idea of the law that there has to be order.”

In a country founded in violence, he sees a high calling for lawyers.

“In order now to become more civilized, something had to take the place of violence. And it’s the law,” he says.

“I think lawyers can be the new peacemakers.”

For one night in October 1996, violence prevailed in St. Petersburg. A police officer, who said he thought his life was in danger, shot and killed a young black man during a traffic stop. The incident set off several nights of racial unrest: fires, looting and protests.

The officer was a white man, James Knight. Ciarciaglino was his lawyer.

A grand jury declined to indict Knight in the shooting, but the Police Department suspended him for 60 days without pay for violating policy. Knight fought it, and an arbitrator reversed the suspension.

Ciarciaglino is proud of the outcome, and of his numerous other cases representing the Police Benevolent Association.

“Somebody’s got to stick up for (law officers),” he says. “I’ve seen them fed to the dogs.”

A few years before that, in 1993, two Pinellas sheriff’s deputies arrested a Largo man in an incident that began with questions about a license plate and escalated into an ugly neighborhood scuffle. John Brundage, 52, was taken to the hospital, then jail, and later died of internal injuries.

“My guys didn’t do anything wrong,” Ciarciaglino says now. “They kneed him and he needed to get kneed.”

A Sheriff’s Office investigation found no wrongdoing by Ciarciaglino’s clients. Prosecutors never brought charges.

Clearwater lawyer Denis deVlaming has known Ciarciaglino for 30 years. More specifically, he has known Ciarciaglino the lawyer.

“I guess what you think of a priest – as being passive – Joe is not as a lawyer,” DeVlaming said. “He’s the kind, when he questions, he’s very, very blunt, to the point that the witness will rock his head back thinking, “I can’t believe you asked that.’

“He’s been known as a rough-and-tumble, aggressive trial lawyer.”

In the past, Ciarciaglino employed those tactics to defend Roman Catholic priests accused of targeting young boys.

When four men sued retired Tampa priest Rocco Charles D’Angelo in 1996, accusing him of molesting them decades earlier, Ciarciaglino argued that too much time had passed to take D’Angelo to court.

When Sarasota priest Jeremiah Spillane was accused of trying via the Internet to meet a 13-year-old boy for sex, Ciarciaglino argued the charges were bogus because the teenager was actually a Clearwater police detective.

Ciarciaglino refuses to discuss those cases, except to say he doesn’t take work defending priests anymore.

“I just don’t want to. Fortunately, I’ve done well enough that I can say no,” he says.

Ciarciaglino, sometimes known simply as “Joe Cigar,” is matter-of-fact about his professional reputation.

“Some people would tell you I’m a pleasant fellow,” he says, sounding a scant coy.

But then, he is candid: “My tolerance of foolishness is not high. I’m trying to work on that.”

He says he doesn’t accept cases of true dirtbags – no armed robbers, for instance – but rather those who have committed “felonious stupidity.”

And he rejects any insinuation of a conflict in being a man of the law and a man of the cloth.

“Why should there be jobs that Christians can’t do?” he asks.

Orthodox Christians consider the faith they practice the original, unaltered religion of Jesus and the apostles. Their liturgy dates to the fourth century and includes none of the traditions introduced by Rome, such as pews in the sanctuary or the stations of the cross.

The Orthodox Church in America traces its origins to Russian missionaries who converted indigenous groups in Alaska in the late 1700s. The church now numbers about 700 parishes throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico and is one of several orthodox churches in the West, many of which have ethnic ties.

“We are the church. We see ourselves as the church founded by Jesus Christ,” said Father Peter Tutko, pastor of Holy Trinity. “That’s why we have converts.”

Ciarciaglino is one of them. He grew up Roman Catholic, but after being sent to fight in Vietnam, he was without a church for 10 years.

But he eventually found his way to the Byzantine Catholic Church, where he was ordained as a deacon. He served in two churches for more than a dozen years and considered entering the priesthood there. But the Vatican rejected his request to be ordained, and Ciarciaglino gradually gravitated to orthodoxy, which allows married men to be ordained.

“I decided to be Orthodox whether they took me as a clergy or a layman,” he says. “I left because I believed.”

At a time when the push among the world’s religions is to be ecumenical and inclusive, Ciarciaglino acknowledges that the Orthodox approach conflicts with that.

“A lot of people are offended when we say this is the true faith,” he says.

But absent from its doctrine are assertions of judgment or elite knowledge.

Who among God’s people will get into heaven? “Our opinion is it’s none of our business,” Ciarciaglino says.

“We’re not there to lord (religion) over them. People can accept things if they know that you love them.”

White, 27, Ciarciaglino’s daughter, was raised Byzantine Catholic and has remained with that denomination.

“I thought (ordination) was a natural next step for him,” she said. “His beliefs are very much in line with the Orthodox Church.”

Jeanne, his wife, converted along with him earlier this year. She didn’t imagine 36 years ago that one day she’d be a priest’s wife, but she doesn’t think her marriage will change now.

“Whatever he thought he wanted to do was fine with me,” she said. “I can be involved as I want to be.”

And she’s okay with their daughter’s decision not to convert.

“We’re very tolerant of each other,” she said.

Also among the converts to Orthodox Christianity is the archbishop, a former Baptist. He supports priests pursuing outside careers, having taught at Southern Methodist University for 13 years before turning to the church full time.

“It’s a way of having some witness outside a restricted atmosphere,” Dmitri said. “I think it’s worthwhile.”

Bill LauBach, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association, was relieved to learn that Ciarciaglino’s ordination didn’t signal the end of his legal career. The 1,200-member union still needs him too much.

“No officer has ever lost a nickel in a lawsuit when Joe C. has been representing,” LauBach said. “That’s why we’ve got him as our lawyer. I just can’t say enough good about the man.”

The bulk of Ciarciaglino’s work these days is personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death, in addition to his work for the PBA. He plans to continue, as he says, representing the “little people.”

As a priest he’ll help to build the 50-member congregation of Holy Trinity and lead the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the University of South Florida.

He sees little that is remarkable about a lawyer becoming a priest – and remaining a lawyer.

“Is it unique? Yes,” he says. “Is it surprising? Probably not, because God always surprises you.”

At the close of the ordination, Ciarciaglino dons new vestments made from material he bought on a trip to Russia. The threads contain real silver.

Smiling parishioners approach him to offer congratulations and receive blessings. One by one, they walk up and kiss his hands.