The Spike got an early Halloween treat on Friday morning when it picked up the Arizona Republic and discovered that New Times and columnist Robert Nelson had been sued in federal court by an attorney for the Diocese of Phoenix.
Normally, you'd think the people being sued would have been served copies of the complaint -- or at least gotten a phone call from the complainer -- before it ended up on their driveway in a newspaper story. But Nelson and New Times' execs were just as surprised as The Spike to read that attorney Gregory Leisse has apparently been working himself into this litigious lather for much of the past year.
From what The Spike can gather from the 73-page statement of the case and its ungodly 21 claims for relief, Leisse's feelings were hurt when diocesan officials and Bishop Thomas O'Brien picked Phoenix attorney Michael Manning over him to be their top legal adviser on allegations that the Catholic Church and O'Brien looked the other way as local priests molested children. You know. That nasty business that has consumed the Phoenix Diocese (not to mention dioceses everywhere) for the last couple years.
Leisse has been the Diocese's chief in-house counsel since 1992. But when heavy-hitter Manning offered to help the church, Leisse apparently got brushed aside.
Manning ultimately parted company with the stubborn O'Brien (what a shock). And then he and State Bar of Arizona President Ernest Calderon, both good Catholics, met with Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley and others on his staff to try to craft some sort of resolution -- principally the resignation of O'Brien -- that would save the church from further embarrassment.
O'Brien did give up his post this summer, but not because of Manning, Calderon and Romley. No, the bishop did it all on his own when he allegedly ran over a pedestrian on a dark street one night and, despite his seriously caved-in windshield, failed to report the fatal accident to police. O'Brien was later tracked down and charged with a felony for leaving the scene of an accident.
So much for saving the church from further embarrassment.
Now comes Leisse, who, with an amusing mix of indignation, outrage and religious righteousness, contends that the county attorney, several of his staff, Manning, his law firm, Calderon, the state Bar, New Times, Nelson and dozens of others to be named later (don't be surprised to see The Spike make the list after this) conspired to get rid of Leisse by, among other things, cutting him out of his rightful position in the lawyerly pecking order while he was on vacation in Europe.
The complaint, filed in federal court, was written by Leisse himself. (Note to Leisse: You know what they say about he who represents himself.) It combines overblown legalese with loyalist chest-thumping (and a weird smattering of arcane Catholic terminology). To wit: "Defendants were motivated, each to varying degrees, by invidiously discriminatory class-based animus" directed toward, Leisse contends, Catholics in general and Diocese officials and Leisse specifically.
Leisse takes issue with a December 11 meeting between Romley, his aides -- Paul Ahler, Bill Culbertson and Barnett Lotstein (all named as defendants) -- Manning and Calderon. This has emerged, in Leisse's mind and lawsuit, as "the December 11 conspiracy" in which the attorneys not only plotted the demise of O'Brien as bishop but also schemed to get rid of Leisse himself. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
The lawyers then went on to craft an agreement, signed by O'Brien, in which O'Brien would stay out of the way of dealing with priests accused of sexual impropriety and Romley would not prosecute him. In the lawsuit, Leisse has turned this into "the Maricopa Concordat" and then needs a lengthy footnote to explain that a concordat, really a simple agreement, has also been defined as an agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and secular authorities.
Leisse also alleges Romley, Manning and the others "obtained the assistance of Defendant Nelson and Defendant New Times in carrying out their plan." Leisse seems to think the crew put Nelson up to writing bad things about the bishop, the Diocese and Leisse. The lawsuit cites several columns that Leisse considers troubling, including an April 10 piece about how Manning and Calderon went to Romley on their own after the bishop balked at their advice.
"In time, though," Nelson wrote, according to the lawsuit, "O'Brien stopped listening to Manning and began listening once again to his old Rasputin, Diocesan general counsel Greg Leisse, the arrogant slimeball architect of much of the Diocese's stonewalling policies."
"While I have heard Leisse described numerous times by different camps as a complete asshole, I have never once heard him described as a good lawyer," Nelson went on to say, according to the lawsuit.
Leisse contends he was slapped around (figuratively, of course) by the conspirators simply because he was trying to protect the bishop and the church from the betrayal of Manning and Calderon. He generally alleges, as all good plaintiffs do, that he suffered a variety of damages including harm to his professional reputation, humiliation, emotional and mental pain, degradation of professional stature, loss of income and property damage.
Still, The Spike's favorite part of the whole lawsuit comes at the beginning of the complaint and then -- drats -- is never revisited or explained. Leisse takes a swipe at New Times, "a weekly publication notable for its anti-Christian animus in general and its anti-Catholic animus in particular." As evidence of this, Leisse cites the hugely popular "Jesus of the Week" feature that for years appeared in the Phoenix paper but now is available only online (www.jesusoftheweek.com).
The short piece "every week ridicules a Christian or Catholic religious icon or symbol or features an animated video, such as a depiction of Jesus jumping on a pogo stick in the form of a crucifix," Leisse writes. He even submitted images off the Web site as attachments to the complaint, but then, beyond serving it up as a general indictment of New Times' despicable attitude toward Western religious symbolism, never mentions it again.
Too bad. As Jesus of the Week would say, Leisse seems to be "looking for the love of Christ in all the wrong places."
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