Wednesday, August 7, 1997
A pastor's contribution
to the law


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The bogeyman sometimes arrives by certified mail. A summons. Notice that you are about to become part of the legal system. As Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seat belts, kids. It's going to be a bumpy night." Or many sleepless nights and many anxious days.

The Rev. Grayson Atha was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. But it took three years and cost his church and his insurance company more than $100,000. A soft-spoken man, the Rev. Mr. Atha says he now knows "anyone can bring suit against anybody for anything." And even though you know you're innocent, "you cannot just disagree and not participate."

Seeking a fortune

What you have to do is hire yourself a good law firm, hand it a blank check and ask that it get you out of this mess. Luckily, his church was insured, and the insurer didn't make him throw in the towel.

Of course, that's not the legal term. The legal term is "settle," which means that you pay the plaintiff to go away, possibly encouraging entrepreneurs to seek their fortune in court. It costs $63 to file a civil suit and $6.50 for a certified letter to the defendant.

Plaintiff William Tate, one of the Rev.Mr. Atha's parishioners at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Walnut Hills, was hoping for $1,058,000 in return. In a civil suit, he accused the pastor of assault and battery and sexual harassment.

The Rev. Mr. Atha's good lawyer was Jay Langenbahn of Lindhorst & Dreidame. He says he guesses that "this is probably going to be another shot at lawyers." I tell him I take shots at lawyers every chance I get (like most Americans), but this appears to be a flaw in the system.

Still, the system is devised and maintained by lawyers, so technically he's right.

The suit, filed May 12, 1994, finally came to trial last month. During those three years, the pastor was required to hand over all his calendars, notes, counseling summaries, income tax returns, answering machine messages, letters and other documents.

This is the part of our system called "discovery." Regular people might call it "fishing" or even "snooping." But what do we know?

Jim Sullivan, who teaches physics in the University of Cincinnati's College of Applied Sciences, says he thinks one of the best things about our system is that it includes juries. "Real people tend to make sensible decisions" is how he puts it.

He was foreman of the jury that found unanimously in favor of the Rev. Mr. Atha after a week of testimony and arguments. The assault was a handshake that was too firm, and the harassment amounted to "funny" looks.

Mr. Tate, a Silverton bus driver, acted as his own attorney and says he was defeated by corruption.

Taking the hard road

Grayson Atha refused to take the easy way out. And even though the costs were huge, I guess you could think of it as an investment. "I didn't want to settle," he says. "That only encourages further lawsuits like this. I wanted to walk out of the courtroom with a clear message of my innocence and begin to put a stop to these types of lawsuits."

He insists I say that there were many good things about his experience. He was surrounded by family - three kids and his wife - and supported by parishioners who "stood solidly behind me."

His youngest daughter, Holly Atha, who lives in Clifton, says the ordeal "robbed us of some of our family life. The hardest thing was watching my father go through this. He is my hero. He genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And he still refuses to be bitter."

Now pastor of a church in Columbus, the Rev. Mr. Atha says, "I loved my time at Mount Zion. The people there were wonderful." He didn't love being sued. Nobody does. He could have made it easier on himself, but he is both principled and practical. There are matters of reputation and precedent.

Mr. Tate had his day in court. The Rev. Mr. Atha was vindicated. The jury was decisive and thorough. The judge was evenhanded and fair. So, I guess in this case, we could say that the system works. But it was painfully slow. Painfully.