The Practice

The attorneys on ABC’s The Practice can’t catch a break. Donnell, Young, Dole, & Frutt, the little law firm that could, always seems to be representing one of its own in a criminal case. It’s a wonder anyone in Boston will hire them. Maybe it’s that whole jailhouse lawyer thing that gets them over.

Season 6 of the series, one of ABC’s few big hits, is no different. Right at the start, Lindsey (Kelli Williams) avoided a conviction and naturally, she’s back at work. In the sixth episode of the season, “The Telltale Nation,” there’s a different sort of conviction at stake.

Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) and Eugene’s (Steve Harris) client, Arvin Grayson (Tim Quill), says his Catholic priest raped him as a teenager. His best friend, Walter Beck (Ray Proscia), told Grayson that he ought to see the father for counseling. Beck forgot to mention that the spiritual healing might include getting butt naked before the priest.

So Grayson sues. The show opens as his attorneys tell him the defense is offering a settlement. But Grayson won’t be low-balled with a measly $8,000. He asks, “Is that the going rate for manual rape?”

There it is. Before the first break, David E. Kelley has punched his way through our carefully sanitized dialogue about the priest scandal. If we all just keep calling it “molestation,” the images of children and teenagers being sexually battered by priests aren’t as clear. Call it “manual rape” and the squirm quotient is magnified.

Kelley’s show has often pushed ethical and moral questions, sometimes to the extreme, as when the lawyers had to decide what to do when a client brought them a severed head. You know, regular law firm challenges. But this “Catholic Church” episode does more than steal ideas from the headlines. It takes a stand on the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the Church leadership’s failure to take responsibility for the crimes committed under its auspices.

The focus is on Bobby (Dylan McDermott), a faithful Catholic who feels put upon as all around him shake their heads about the terrible molesting priests. Bobby feels Eugene and Ellenor do their client a disservice by not taking the settlement and a subsequent, higher offer. He’s also angry that they didn’t take the firm’s finances into account. After Bobby’s outburst and retreat into his Office, we see Eugene give a slight tilt of his head and, as in nearly every episode, he goes inside to confront his partner.

The power struggles between Bobby and Eugene provide the tightest moments for the series. Eugene’s righteous attitude and Bobby’s presumption of privilege (both because he’s white and the firm’s founder) give each of their battles juice. On the abuse, Eugene spits it right out: he’s biased against Catholics, because they’ve continued to support the Church and they haven’t been angry enough about the abuse. He says Bobby and the rest of the faithful ought to shut down the Church and start a new one.

And Eugene isn’t alone. Lindsey, Bobby’s wife, cops to Catholic bias generated by the abuse scandals. She makes it clear that their infant son, Bobby, Jr., will never be a Catholic. She can’t stomach the thought of him being alone with a priest. It’s her belief that until the Church drops its demand for celibacy, there will be a disproportionate number of molesters in the priesthood.

While Bobby is pondering his relationship to the Church and the state of the priesthood, Lindsey and Jamie Stringer (Jessica Capshaw), are handling a very different and initially ridiculous case.

Louise Farcher (Suzanne Krull) and Albert Ball (William Francis McGuire) come to the firm together, though their dispute is with each other. Albert is a fairly non-descript guy, but Louise, a geeky-looking woman is more than a little strange. Her loud lovemaking noises are causing problems, according to Albert, her neighbor and former lover. But neither has filed a suit since they are looking for mediation. That turns out to be unnecessary when Albert is found dead in Louise’s apartment. Lindsey heard about a shooting at the apartment and sent Bobby to check it out, because she just can’t. She’s still too shaky from her own recent tribulations.

Louise says Albert came at her with a knife, saying he would stab her in the heart. Her response to the attack? “Zeus in heaven!” This is Louise’s special little phrase, which she uses so much that, when Jamie researches boyfriend murders in Denver and Cleveland, it’s easy to connect them to Louise, since one report quotes the murderess saying, “Zeus in heaven!” That and the fact that Louise’s picture with another name appears in a news account. So, Jamie’s first big client is a serial killer (whom the cops have let off, because they don’t know about the other identities and murders). Now Jamie fits right in with The Practice crew. She has a client who’s getting off, and though she knows the woman’s a serial killer, she has to figure out what to do about it.

The surprise twist keeps the show from feeling like a class in ethics. The answers here are not black and white, but some murky shade of gray. And, as is often the case, the rules tie the attorneys’ hands, even when they clearly have the goods on a killer. Though the focus of the episode is a condemnation of the Church’s irresponsibility, a heavy-duty social crisis, Kelley redirects the viewer’s attention to fare more typical of the series, as if to remind us that his stories won’t always address the big questions.

In the end, Bobby decides it’s his moral responsibility to leave the Church. His priest, Father Patrick (Robert Prosky), tries to talk him out of it, but Bobby counters, “What can you say, Father? Molestation gets a bad rap?” Father Patrick warns him, “When you leave the Church, you leave the faith.” But for Bobby, the decision is about “spiritual and moral leadership” in the Church and the lack of true penance on the issue of sexually abusive priests. And what will Bobby, who has gone to his priest when grappling with the numerous moral dilemmas of his practice, do now? Well, the next time he’s faced with a case that challenges his ethical and moral assumptions, maybe he can call on Zeus.