A top ranking Albany County prosecutor vowed to sue John Aretakis after the attorney claimed that false testimony was allowed into a murder trial last year. Aretakis, Mark Harris said during the sentencing in Albany County Court last week, is a “disgrace” to the criminal defense bar.
It’s not the first time Aretakis has been in the spotlight for his legal maneuvering.
To some, Aretakis is a tireless advocate for childhood victims of sexual abuse who has effectively raised awareness about sexual abuse by priests right in our own backyard. Others question the merits of some of the lawsuits he’s filed since the priest sexual misconduct scandal erupted in the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s difficult to determine exactly what his legal record is and how many cases he’s won or lost; Aretakis himself didn’t have the numbers. But it’s certain he’s had at least a half dozen lawsuits dismissed and has had his share of other legal problems.
“He has not prevailed in a single lawsuit against the Albany diocese,” said diocese spokesman Kenneth Goldfarb.
Stack of complaints
Aretakis has filed 15 sexual abuse lawsuits that have been dismissed by a judge or withdrawn by Aretakis or his client, according to Goldfarb. The first was filed in 2003 against the diocese or diocesan officials.
“We would not comment or make any observation on his skills as an attorney,” said Goldfarb.
In September 2007, Aretakis was sanctioned by a federal court judge and ordered to pay more than $24,000 for filing a “baseless lawsuit” against a Catholic diocese and the U.S. government. The lawsuit alleged that the church broke its agreement to provide charitable housing to a woman who was forced out of her New Orleans apartment because of Hurricane Katrina.
He has had more than 15 complaints filed against him, more than half of them from the state Committee on Professional Standards, which oversees the conduct of attorneys in the state.
One complaint, filed in November 2004 by Mark S. Ochs, chief counsel of the Committee on Professional Standards, said Aretakis “engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and conduct tending to bring the legal professional into disfavor and disrepute.”
Ochs said last week he could not disclose how many complaints are filed against an attorney or even confirm or deny if a complaint is filed. He also would not comment on Aretakis.
Aretakis, of North Greenbush, who is married and has a young son, brushes aside any criticism.
“I’m waging a very public battle with the diocese, “ he said.
He said he has a total of 250 clients around the state who have been sexually abused as children or teenagers. Most of them hired him as adults, years after they were abused.
Aretakis said that out of 125 clients he represents in the Albany diocese, he’s filed lawsuits in 15 to 18 cases.
He said he didn’t know how many of his lawsuits have been dismissed, adding that “99 percent of his cases settle.”
“The one thing that has happened with the Albany diocese on clergy cases is that they don’t want to settle on a case for $50,000, $100,000 or $200,000. They don’t want to be in a case of feeding the enemy. They will all settle together or wait till the statute of limitation ends,” said Aretakis.
He said he’s settled 25 to 30 sexual abuse cases with the Catholic Church, which includes the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, and he estimates that this amounts to $2.5 million in church-related settlements.
He’s had some outright wins as well. In 1996, Aretakis won almost $1 million in a clergy abuse case he filed against the Albany diocese, even though the statute of limitations had passed. Aretakis told diocesan attorney Michael Costello at the time that his client was going to go public with his case against the Rev. Mark Haight, and eventually, the diocese paid nearly $1 million.
It was the largest such settlement in New York state. Aretakis received roughly $300,000; the victim received $600,000.
The Rev. Kenneth Doyle, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, declined to comment for this article.
A crusade for safety
“I know where the argument goes,” Aretakis said. “I know I have not made judges happy, and here’s why. You know more than 90 percent of my clients were molested 10 to 20 years ago. When I go to police, they refer to the statute of limitations.”
Aretakis said he will continue to fight for victims. He said he’ll urge the state to impose harsher sentencing guidelines in child molestation cases and stricter monitoring of accused offenders free on bail. He also plans to fight to remove the statute of limitations on past child sex offense crimes.
Aretakis said he has to figure out “innovative, creative ways to get pedophiles’ ” names out in public. He’s said he’s been told by news outlets that if there is no civil action or criminal action, a story cannot be done.
“I have done everything to get names of these pedophiles into the newspapers so parents and others can protect their children,” he said. “I haven’t made a dime in clergy cases in the last four years.
“What are we to do when I know there is a 50-year-old priest who molested children? Should I try to get the name in the newspaper so he will be pulled from ministry so parents can help their children?” he asked.
Aretakis said he’s not doing this for money but so “your children, my 9-year-old son and children in Schenectady, Albany, Schoharie are not molested.”
He said that because of his work, 24 pedophiles have been removed from ministry.
How many of his lawsuits have been dismissed? He said he doesn’t know.
A lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of Joseph Woodward that named the Albany diocese and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard was dismissed in Jan 2005.
In 2006, a judge ordered him to stay away from Holy Cross Parish when he and member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests protested at Holy Cross and sought the ouster of the Rev. Daniel Mahar.
A judge dismissed a $450,000 lawsuit that Aretakis filed against former priest the Rev. John Bertolucci, ruling that there was no factual support for the claims that the priest tried to intimidate the parents of a man he was accused of molesting.
Recently, when one of his clients, Christopher Oathout, was being sentenced for murder in Albany County Court, Oathout told the judge that Aretakis wasn’t looking out for his best interests.
And when Aretakis accused Harris of allowing false testimony into a murder trial last year, Harris vowed to sue Aretakis during an explosive courtroom scene.
“I’m researching it, and I will leave it at that. I won’t say anything beyond what was said in the courtroom,” Harris said on Friday.
“I welcome and look forward to the day he sues me. The problem with Mark Harris is he doesn’t know the law and he is not allowed to sue me, and if he did, his case would be tossed out,” said Aretakis.
Aretakis said a person can’t be a public official, perform public duties, sue and win personal money.
In a Schoharie County courtroom, attorney F. Stanton Ackerman, representing convicted child molester Patrick D. Cascanet, asked County Court Judge George R. Bartlee III to stop Aretakis from attacking him.
Another Albany attorney said that Aretakis is close to violating the code of ethics and that legal cases filed by Aretakis do not fall within the state’s statute of limitations.
End justifies the means?
Mark Lyman, co-director of the Albany chapter of the Surviviors Network of Those Abused by Priests, hired Aretakis in 2004 to represent him when he filed a lawsuit alleging that he was abused by a priest as a child.
“He’s had legal battles in courtrooms,” said Lyman. “Yes, he’s been sanctioned, fined, hammered by a significant number of judges in the area, but at the same time, I don’t see anyone else who is out there trying to bring forth cases for their clients the way John is,” said Lyman.
The overwhelmingly majority of the members of SNAP respect Aretakis, said Lyman. (There are 73 members.)
“Is he a rabble rouser? A troublemaker? Does he stir up problems for sexual predators? Yes, he surely does, and I am thankful for that, and I think many people are.
“Does everyone agree with John’s tactics? Not necessarily. I know I don’t.”
Lyman said that predators have been exposed and the truth has been disseminated because of what Aretakis has done.
“He exposed these men and he stood up and spoke out for his clients, and those priests were removed, and they will not continue that pattern of sexual abuse. These are issues where the public has been protected, and from SNAP’s perspective, it’s a major accomplishment,” said Lyman.
Aretakis often tells Lyman that he wears the sanctions as a “badge of honor.”
Lyman said that as far as he knows, Aretakis has not made any money from the church since the abuse scandals began.