Kevin Zile becomes emotional when he talks about Cindy Robinson. “The first time I met her was at her office,” he begins, calmly. He describes the centuryold brick building across the street from the Fairfield County Courthouse in Bridgeport that is the home of Tremont & Sheldon. Robinson has a corner office on the ground floor, all windows and wood, with a glass door leading to a vest-pocket garden.
“It was four years ago,” Zile continues. “She was pregnant. And I was at the point in my life where I was the lowest I had ever been.”
Zile sat down nervously that day. Robinson smiled and waited for him to speak. Another lawyer had referred him to Robinson—she thought she knew why, but she waited for him to tell her.
“She was so gentle and kind,” Zile recalls. “I just remember this beautiful woman helping me …” His voice catches, and then he sobs. Collecting himself, he talks about what he told Robinson that day—things he had never told anyone. About how a Catholic priest had begun abusing him when he was an altar boy. It went on for years, into his teens. The priest would take him away for the summer, to camps and cabins in the New England woods, and share him with other men. Zile told how he tried to report the priest to church officials, but nothing came of it. The priest died years before, but the abuse hung over Zile’s life, shadowing his relationships with friends and family and undermining his own sense of self-worth. Sitting in front of Robinson, he admitted he was suicidal. She listened until he was finished. And then she said something that Zile had been waiting decades to hear.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She told him she was sorry for what he had gone through. She was sorry that no one had protected him. She was sorry that no one had tried to help him.
“I’m sorry,” Robinson told Zile. Beginning that day, from that very moment, she would try to help him.
Zile is one of dozens of victims of child sex abuse in Connecticut whom Robinson and her partners at Tremont & Sheldon have helped. In recent years, Robinson and her firm have won settlements in the tens of millions of dollars from the Roman Catholic Church and from individual lawsuits on behalf of other victims of child sex abuse—both men and women—against relatives, neighbors and other religious denominations.
Not that all of her work is related to sex abuse. Robinson has won settlements and verdicts in a broad range of complex catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death cases—medical malpractice, slip and fall, auto accidents. She serves on the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association’s board of governors and often speaks to state and national lawyers’ groups on trial tactics and strategies. But what she is known for, both in and out of legal circles, is representing people who were—no, who are and always will be—victims of child abuse.
It isn’t a specialty she planned. “Not in my wildest dreams,” she says today. “But when you see the devastation this kind of harm has caused people for the rest of their lives, you do what you have to do to help them. They need someone to speak for them. I give them that voice.”
Robinson grew up in Hamden, where her dad was a buyer for a furniture store and her mom stayed at home to take care of Robinson and her sister. She was co-president of the student council in high school and one of the leaders of a community effort to bring black and white students, parents and teachers together to ease racial tensions in the small city in the late 1970s.
She loved modern dance and performed in productions in high school and at Wesleyan University, where she majored in English and government and graduated with honors. She also served on the board that considered violations of the school’s honor code. “I found it’s not so easy to sit in judgment of other people,” she says.
Intrigued by her taste of jurisprudence, Robinson enrolled in the University of Connecticut School of Law. She took to the law right away, starring on the moot court team and graduating in 1986.
She was a promising young litigator working at a small firm in Westport when she met venerable trial attorney T. Paul Tremont at a seminar. They clicked, and he hired her in 1987. At first, she literally carried his bags. She sat in on client conferences. She saw him prepare cases. She went to court with him. He posed questions that made her think. He was a gourmet cook, and it struck her that watching him prepare a case was like watching him in his kitchen. He prepared his arguments meticulously, just as he did his ingredients, and added his own flair.
Robinson was as impressed with her mentor’s heart as well as his head. “In addition to being a brilliant man,” she says, “he was very compassionate.” In the early 1990s the firm agreed to take on the case of a Bridgeport man who had been abused by a priest. Soon more men, many of them middle-aged, were coming to the firm with similar stories. On behalf of 14 plaintiffs, the firm sued the Diocese of Bridgeport not only for employing priests who were pedophiles but for covering up abuse complaints (priests suspected of child abuse were merely transferred to new parishes, where they began abusing different children). That lawsuit was one of the first abuse cases filed against the clergy in America. The Catholic Church fought it bitterly for years by seeking protective orders, delaying depositions and filing motions to dismiss.
Tremont died in 1999, a few weeks before that first case against the diocese was settled. Of the 26 plaintiffs covered in the sealed settlement, 24 were represented by Robinson’s firm. By then, Robinson and her partners, including Tremont’s son, Jason, had more cases against other priests. In 2001 and 2002, the Diocese of Bridgeport settled several dozen individual lawsuits filed by Robinson and her firm, and in 2003, Robinson and her partners won $21 million for 40 plaintiffs. The Archdiocese of Hartford settled another case that gave $22 million to 43 plaintiffs, 15 of them represented by Robinson, Jason Tremont and Doug Mahoney, another Tremont & Sheldon partner. Their settlements approached an average of half a million dollars per plaintiff, compared with $85 million for more than 500 victims in Boston (averaging $170,000 per plaintiff), or $6.5 million for 61 victims in Manchester, N.H. (averaging $107,000 per plaintiff). Today, Tremont & Sheldon is investigating additional claims of abuse in every diocese in Connecticut.
It is a remarkable record for a firm whose six lawyers (“It’s always been four or five guys and me,” Robinson says) share a single paralegal. All their cases are on contingency, and sex abuse cases can take years. After all, Robinson notes, the cases are not like an auto accident, with easy access to reports, records and witnesses. Robinson typically spends about one-quarter of her time on child sex abuse cases—though in some years, especially when there are big settlements, it has been closer to half her time.
Tremont, who works from his late father’s office next to Robinson’s, explains what it is about Robinson that sets her apart from most attorneys. “Cindy has compassion,” he says. “Our clients trust in her and confide in her. She treats clients with respect and dignity.”
Robinson often sits for hours at a time with victims, and then spends more hours with their families. It’s not unusual for brothers or sisters to reveal that they, too, were abused. Victims have vivid, intense, upsetting stories. It’s often the first time a victim has told anyone what happened, and often the first time anyone has believed him or her. “I’m a very good listener,” Robinson says. “You just have to be patient.”
She doesn’t talk about the emotional toll, if any, that her clients and their horrific stories take on her. “It comes with the territory,” she says with a shrug. She and her husband have two children—the “best kids in the world”—who are too young to comprehend the sensitive nature of mom’s job. She may take them to court when they’re older, but for now, her work stays at the office.
One of the constant challenges she faces is managing the expectations of her clients. Most want to see their abusers in prison. Yet her cases are civil, not criminal—the statute of limitations is often expired—which she must explain. And she must tread carefully around the delicate psychological condition of her clients. “You see the pain they live with,” she says. “It will never go away. You just have to address it.”
She makes sure potential clients understand the sort of questions they will be asked in depositions and tells them that those inquiries may not be asked in the same soothing and sympathetic manner she offers. “There have been cases where I have not gotten involved because I don’t feel that the potential plaintiff may be stable enough to handle the actual litigation,” she says. “Many times they feel totally revictimized by the process. To put them through that, you really have to think hard about it.”
No abuse victim has ever walked into her office asking about damages. “The mere act of making a claim can be very empowering for people,” she says.
Zile, now 53, lives with his wife and two daughters in Massachusetts and works as a psychiatric nurse. He says Robinson never pushed him to make a claim. “Everything that happened, she always prefaced it with, was I sure I wanted to go ahead? Her first concern was always that she didn’t want to cause me any more pain than I’d already been through.”
His claim was part of the $22 million settlement by the Archdiocese of Hartford. This is what he thinks about the money: “I was abused hundreds of times, and it worked out to about $25 for every time I was abused.”
Choking back sobs again, Zile says Robinson understands the real goal of coming forward. “It was the only way the Catholic Church would listen,” he says. “The victory is in getting out the message and making sure that everybody is watching now.”
Robinson’s biggest gift to him was not the money he received. “Cindy kept helping me understand it wasn’t my fault,” he says. “She’s my angel.”