Looking Beyond Aqualung
Providence-based family law attorney Tim Conlon on computer crime in the ’80s, suing the Roman Catholic Church as a Catholic, and how society can help prevent institutional child abuse
Published in 2013 New England Super Lawyers magazine on October 21, 2013
Q: Apparently you worked in computers during the early part of your career.
A: It was in the mid-to-late ‘80s. I did computer crime prosecutions for a while. At the time, it had nothing to do with anything, although it ultimately turned out to be relatively useful in terms of the digital forensic work that I now do.
Q: That had to have been on the leading edge of computer work.
A: There was no computer crime unit in the Rhode Island State Police at that point. There were people doing white collar stuff and organized crime, but there were no “computer crimes.”
Ralph Perry was infamous here for something called RIHMFC—Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation—which was a quasi-state, quasi-public entity that was supposed to do low-income or moderate-income loans to stimulate the housing market. The Providence Journal unearthed information about questionable loans that had been made to either politically connected or favored people who weren’t qualified. It got a hold of that fact and started digging around RIHMFC and Ralph Perry, who got indicted eventually. Someone—and Perry ultimately was charged with this—started deleting from the computing system at RIHMFC the mortgage information relating to specific mortgages, controversial mortgages.
What he did not know at the time was that their system basically kept a log of every deletion. So, as he was busy having these people deleted out of the system, he was basically logging the fact that that was done. And the fact that the only ones that got deleted were the ones that were suspicious kind of made it very obvious that it was not an accident.
Q: Meanwhile, he was leaving a trail of bread crumbs. So at the time, were you a tech-savvy guy?
A: Not in the formal sense. I had taken some electrical engineering at Brown when I was there, frankly because I was interested in electronic music. But I was very much into the tech stuff and using computers in the courtroom and such, back in the ‘80s, even.
Then [my bosses] asked me if I wanted to take over running the computer system, and basically, it was a raise and it gave me an opportunity to take over the Perry prosecution as it related to computer crime. I thought that was fascinating, so why the hell not? That’s basically what got me into the whole computer forensics piece of things, which in the divorce end has become a huge deal.
Q: How do those skills translate to family law?
A: Well, there are basically two things that are hot-button issues on the family law end. One is the use of computer forensics to recover financial information or misconduct information.
In one, for instance, the guy had disclosed somewhere between $8 and $12 million which was divided in connection with the divorce when, in fact, if you went through his computers, you could see net worth statements for $25 million. So, basically he had hid or ghosted half the marital estate, if you will, during the course of the divorce.
The other ones are the social media ones, where people are blogging or otherwise putting stuff out on the Net that’s useful in divorces in terms of impeaching them on their conduct. I did one trial where the gal had brought a domestic violence charge against the guy after an argument. This was back in the day of Myspace. You go back to her Myspace account and she literally blogs on the Myspace account something to the effect of, “Oh, rough night.” “What’s the matter,” says a friend. She chats back, “My old man caught a domestic on me.” And somebody says, “Oh, jeez, are you OK?” And she literally blogs—this is a quote—“Oh, I’m fine. I think I f—ed him up more than he f—ed me up.”
So, when she gets on the stand, you pull that out and you’re in pretty good shape in the sense that the judge is looking at her like “Are you out of your mind?”
Q: Do people just think that those sorts of communications will never get out? Or are they just not making the connection that it would be bad to talk about it?
A: I think it’s a combination of [a couple of] things.
First of all, there are people who, for whatever compulsive reason just need to blog, text, chat, IM about everything that goes on in their lives 24/7. This particular kind of person is almost incapable of doing anything without posting something on Facebook. These are people who are posting 100 times a day. These are people who are texting 100 times a day.
The other part of it is that I think some people feel—incorrectly—that when they’re chatting on the Net or chatting with their friends or chatting through the computer, it’s almost as if it’s in some sort of cone of silence. If they were out in a coffee shop with other people within earshot, they probably would never say these things. But somehow, they’ve got this deluded idea that when they’re just chatting over the Net it’s almost like it doesn’t count.
So they just ignore the risk. This particular guy lied and said that he deleted all his emails. That was his answer as to why he didn’t produce any. So we got a court order that a special master be appointed to basically go through the guy’s emails. We find 3,000 emails, many of which related to a business he was trying to hide his interest in. And, as the judge put it, “Well, I guess he forgot that he didn’t delete them.”
Q: Do you think people are ever going to get savvier about this sort of thing?
A: I’m sure that some people will clean up some of their act. But I’m afraid that there’s always going to be this segment. A divorce is a very emotional thing. And people will either delude themselves into believing that it’s right for them to engage in this subterfuge because they think their underlying principle is correct. Or they’re just so emotionally out of control that they don’t care.
Q: Before your time as a prosecutor, you were a public defender representing kids.
A: It was great. I had a very understanding boss who allowed me to go after what, from my point of view, were some pretty significant issues of misconduct in the system. So I was able to empty out and reform a facility and get a couple of consent orders that changed practices as they related to kids, which ultimately got me into the whole child abuse litigation thing.
Q: It clearly informs some of your current work.
A: It turns out that there was an institution that was illegally incarcerating kids and they were engaged in a bunch of very questionable, at best, tactics—handcuffing kids to objects, isolation for extended periods of time—just things that made absolutely no sense. So, I started litigating around the propriety of doing this to kids, particularly kids who have never been charged with any crime. Ultimately the court ordered virtually all of those kids released.
Q: That seems like some heavy stuff to get involved in right out of law school.
A: So then, flash forward, kids who were in the reformed facility wind up bringing civil actions for sexual abuse with private lawyers years after I’m out in private practice. [The facility] hired a guy … and he got indicted for getting sexual favors from 14- and 15-year-old girls who were in the facility in exchange for special treatment. The private lawyers call me: “Are you willing to work on us with this? You know a lot about what happened.”
So next thing you know I’m doing depositions and litigating with Williams & Connolly out of Washington, D.C. They were happy to get somebody who knew what was going on in the facilities. Then I picked up a couple of teacher sexual misconduct cases—I think three of them—and then ultimately started getting involved in clergy abuse cases.
Q: You yourself are Catholic. How did that affect the experience?
A: One, on the most direct personal level, I remember my mom coming to me and saying, “Tim, are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” Because she’s picking up the newspaper and she’s reading all of these articles about the church getting sued.
My answer to her was, “Well, Mom, I’ve sued the school departments, I’ve sued the group homes, I’ve sued the doctors, I’ve sued everybody else that did something that they shouldn’t have done with somebody they shouldn’t. I’ve sued lawyers for having sex with clients. So how do I give the church a pass?” She could live with that.
Certainly, there was a personal level upon which I was aware that something that had been a part of my upbringing—I had been involved in my parish as a young man as an altar server. So I had a lot of respect for the institution.
But I looked at it much like Watergate. You don’t hate the presidency because you’re pissed off as hell that Richard Nixon is overseeing a felony. You became sophisticated enough somewhere in the ‘70s to understand that the beauty of the United States is that no man is above the law. If the president is going to lie or cover up a crime, he’s going to get booted. And it’s not because you don’t love your country, it’s not because you’re not patriotic. It’s because the right thing to do is to hold somebody accountable.
And keeping that perspective in mind, it had nothing to do with any sort of vendetta against the church. It really had to do with cleaning up the church. I think the church, ultimately, is better for having had the light of day shined on those practices.
Q: The conspiracy angle seemed like a unique way to come at the case.
A: It was what I think was going on. The church was attempting to avoid the problem by treating each one of these things as isolated instances. So when something perked up to the point where it got caught either by the police or public attention with a court or lawsuit or something, the response was always like, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible. We’ll deal with it. It won’t happen again.”
But the problem was that their institutional response behind the scenes, if you will, was anything but [that]. And in fact, the things that they were doing, practically speaking, licensed the behavior because they were covering for priests. Whether they were doing it in the deliberate sense of, “OK, fine, my goal is to kill a criminal prosecution in and of itself,” I don’t think that’s the case. But they were basically setting priests up to re-offend and re-offend and re-offend. And until you got that out on a systemic level and people could see it on a systemic level, nothing was going to change.
It’s not like people didn’t sue over clergy abuse in 1986, because they did. And yet, the church was able to treat each one as if they were isolated anomalies as opposed to a part of a bigger scheme or a bigger problem. Once the public got onto the fact that, “Wait a minute, this isn’t just a frickin’ coincidence. This is basically a policy that they’ve got to try to minimize the problem, and it’s just festering.” Well then, that pretty much shut it down.
Q: What do you think we need to do as a society to stop this sort of institutional abuse?
A: That’s a complicated thing. I think people have to be more prepared to accept something that they would just assume live in denial of.
You have an institution that everybody knows does good things. The vast majority of people who are involved in this institution are there for the best of reasons. But those institutions have to recognize that where they interface with children, they are, by definition, a magnet for people who have an inappropriate sexual interest with kids.
Now, that sucks. But it’s just a fact. So, whether it’s Jerry Sandusky or it’s Father Jones or it’s a troop leader, you have to treat each person who comes through there understanding that they could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s just that simple. And when something goes wrong or something smells like it might have gone wrong, it has to be vetted independently of your feelings for the person.
Because what happens, time and again is that the person who does this is “such a nice guy.” If I had a dime for every time I was told that a perp was “such a nice guy,” I could stop practicing law. They’re all nice guys. People have an innate desire to believe that the only person who would do this is someone who is inherently evil and is identifiable as such.
You go to the sort of Aqualung image—sitting on the park bench eyeing little girls with bad intentions. The lyrics are literally, “Snot running down his nose.” It’s an annoying figure, a mythically evil-looking person. That mythology gives great fuel to the Jerry Sanduskys of the world, who is able to be a hell of a nice guy. They just have a very sick interest in children, and they’re incapable of controlling it.
You have to, unfortunately, sort of rewire your brain to accept the fact that some of the people who do this do not look like Aqualung. They don’t look like a guy in a trench coat. They look like the guy in the office next door.
From my point of view, the people who’ve done the litigation with the church, collectively I think we’ve upgraded public consciousness about all of this. Things have gotten significantly better. I genuinely believe that.