We polled local attorneys to find out who they thought were the best lawyers in 12 consumer specialties. The verdict has been returned. Here they are: the lawyers other lawyers would turn to first.
Research assistance by Jaclyn Smagala and Emily Riley
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Why would a former Catholic take on the church?
As the Parable of the Good Samaritan goes, a man is beaten and robbed. A priest, fearing punishment by his church, leaves the man for dead. The victim is finally saved by a sinner, who thus proves himself worthy of eternal life.
Civil rights attorney Thomas Neuberger quotes the story often. “It wasn’t the religious hierarchy that helped the guy lying in the road,” he points out.
A former Catholic who feels a betrayal in the sexual abuse of children by priests, Neuberger is determined to right the wrongs he claims the Diocese of Wilmington has covered up for years.
By September, Neuberger had filed 16 lawsuits under the Child Victims Act of 2007. By January 23, he will have filed at least 18 more. The rate accelerated after Bishop Michael Saltarelli retired in September.
“Bishop Saltarelli was not using the national playbook that’s been followed in Boston and Los Angeles, which is to burn the victims and make it as miserable as you can,” Neuberger says. “The new guy wants to use the national playbook. That’s fine and dandy with us, and we will fight them tooth and nail. Reconciliation and healing for the victims has been replaced with an iron fist.”
(Diocese spokesman Robert Krebs says it is not appropriate to comment about pending cases. He points out that new Bishop W. Francis Malooly, during his first major public address here, explained his feelings for the victims and the way he’ll proceed.)
A plaque on Neuberger’s desk reads, “With God all things are possible, Matthew 12:26.” His large Bible is displayed prominently. Neuberger is not a lapsed Catholic. Instead, he was “saved” at the First Assembly of God Pentecostal Church in New Castle. That happened long before he was found by the victims of abuse by priests. Neuberger had spent 25 years defending religious institutions on behalf of The Rutherford Institute, which provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.
“I worked hard for the rights of religiously motivated institutions,” Neuberger says. “It broke my heart to, after decades defending them, learn that they had feet of clay. And I say to myself, If you won’t protect children, you don’t deserve to try to invoke alleged protections of the Constitution. No one should be able to cover up the abuse of children.”
Neuberger’s other civil rights cases also have made headlines. He successfully sued the Pentagon on several occasions, and he won a $2 million settlement for Sgt. Jason Adkins, who was disciplined for speaking out about a tainted anthrax vaccine at Dover Air Force Base.
Neuberger is investigating 10 abuse claims against public schools. Three are pending against the Brandywine and Colonial districts. One of the Brandywine cases resulted from the Rachel Holt saga. Holt, a teacher, is serving time in prison for rape. Neuberger represented her victims. Now he’s going after their district.
Barry M. Willoughby, a partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, will represent Brandywine in the case, scheduled for June.
“Tom’s a formidable adversary,” Willoughby says. “He’s aggressive and certainly tries to push his side, as we do. What Rachel Holt did was wrong. But the school district did everything reasonable. I can’t see a claim against the district, nor do I see any negligence.”
Neuberger would like to be remembered as a defender of women’s rights. He beat the DuPont Co. on behalf of Barbara Sheridan, who charged the company with sex discrimination and retaliation.
His proudest professional moment came from a suit on behalf of Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the first woman to command a combat aviation squadron and to fly in battle. McSally sued the Defense Department for requiring her to wear Muslim garb every time she left her base in Saudi Arabia. With Neuberger’s help, McSally changed the policy.
McSally never paid Neuberger. Her case, like many, was pro bono. But she did send him a flag that flew on behalf of the Neuberger family during a combat mission over Afghanistan on November 11, 2005. It is displayed behind his desk.
Page 2: Family Law