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Ask Dan Shea to answer a simple direct question and prepare to end up getting a discourse on everything from, just for example, Pope Leo XIII, the French Revolution and the Council of Trent. (A gifted mimic, Shea delivers these screeds in accents ranging from Polish to French to Italian wiseguy to exaggerations of his own fading Family Guy-like Rhode Island bray.)
And save for the mimicry, when he takes up a sex abuse case, he marshals all that intellectual weight in order to put the entire last 1,700 years of Catholic tradition on trial. In a suit active in Corpus Christi right now, he does that pretty much explicitly, with pleadings harking back to the Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. There's a method to it: He believes it's necessary to show that the church's ancient traditional culture has bred an ongoing criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Not that his knowledge of church workings is confined to ancient history. "Dan's a smart and relentless advocate for the victims he represents," says David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests. "He's got an advantage over many attorneys because he clearly understands the arcane workings and obscure lingo of the church hierarchy. He isn't ever intimidated by all the legal maneuvers that Catholic defense lawyers exploit to try and keep bishops out of the witness box."
Tahira Khan Merritt, the Dallas lawyer with whom Shea had served as co-counsel on the Houston case, says that she appreciates both his knowledge of the workings of the Vatican and his historical perspective.
In a sworn affidavit in another of Shea's famous cases — when he helped sue Harris County District Judge John Devine in order to get Devine to take down the Ten Commandments he had hanging on his court's walls — former South Texas College of Law president and dean William Wilks said that Shea was "among the first rank of lawyers with interdisciplinary competence in the field of church-state relations."
It's an old obsession of Shea's, one he picked up from his father back in Providence. Shea says that in the south Providence, Rhode Island of his Irish Catholic youth, he wouldn't have known a Protestant or a Republican if he fell over one. His dad was a no-bullshit quality control engineer, and nothing irked him more than politicians who advertised their faith. (Shea says that seeing the Ten Commandments on the walls of Judge Devine's courtroom made him feel like his father's son for the very first time.)
Not that his father was antichurch. Shea was an altar boy at St. Michael's and the lead singer in the children's choir. At 17, he was at loggerheads with his dad — "Like most Irish families, by the time I was a teenager, he wanted to kill me and I wanted to kill him" — so he ran away to the Navy, where he drew submarine duty. He quickly became one of the youngest nuclear-reactor operators in the Navy, and now says that sub duty was the formative experience of his life.
Pictures of two submarines are hung proudly on the walls of his River Oaks-area office. "You can't engage in self-deception in a submarine," he said. "You can't look at a meter and tell yourself, 'This isn't happening.' It's about facts. You've gotta say, 'This is what's happening, I have to go do this — now!'"
That training has guided him ever since, he says. Along with his hardwiring from his dad in the Devine case, it guided him then. And it was there when he ended his formal involvement with the Catholic Church in the mid-'70s.
After mustering out of the Navy in the early '60s, Shea was at something of a loose end. He says that the Catholic Church was an exciting institution in those days, full of intellectual ferment in the run-up to Vatican II. Two bishops of his acquaintance told him that the church needed men of his brainpower and drive to help guide the church into its new frontier, so off he went to seminary in Louvain. Not long after his studies were completed, he says, the conservatives in the Vatican had undone much of what Vatican II had set in motion. A priest told him flat-out that the church needed "parish priests, not smart guys" like Shea, who served as a deacon for about a year before quitting.
"The church I was trained to work in no longer existed," he says.
Nevertheless, he still regularly attended Mass, but fell back on his Navy nuclear training to find work. For much of the '70s, he had very good jobs working for companies that built nuclear plants, but that industry started to die with Three Mile Island and then croaked completely after Chernobyl, but not before the East Coast company Shea was working for was bought by Brown & Root, who transferred Shea to Texas. In Houston, he was the organist at Midtown's Holy Rosary Church for many years.
In 1990, Shea got his law degree. Roughly ten years later he won a big case. He bought a yacht, decorated its prow with a shamrock and named it Seriatim, but he also wanted to give back to his faith.
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