John Manly has every reason to fume. He just stepped into his corner office at the eighth-floor headquarters of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, the Irvine law firm involved in some of the largest sex-abuse settlements in the United States over the past 20 years. The firm’s win column is stunning: more than $1 billion in damages against Catholic dioceses across the United States. $228 million against the Los Angeles Unified School District. More than $200 million against the Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Victories against private businesses, county governments, individual molesters and so many more.
On Manly’s desk sit mountains of depositions for his firm’s next opponent: USA Gymnastics. His team represents more than 300 women who claim that officials at the gymnastics federation and at Michigan State University knew that team physician Larry Nassar sexually molested them, yet did nothing to stop him. Nassar has already pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault and child pornography in a saga that has riveted the country and has brought Manly universally positive coverage for perhaps the first time in his career.
But he’s thinking about none of that goodwill right now. Right now, Manly is riveted to his iPhone, where he watches a live feed of interim MSU President John Engler addressing the Michigan State Senate’s higher education subcommittee. Engler is complaining that an aggressive “California plaintiffs’ lawyer” wants to bilk Michigan taxpayers by refusing to accept the school’s offers to settle all the Nassar cases.
The California lawyer is Manly.
He bites his lip and presses his hands into an armchair so hard that it looks like he wants to launch himself into the iPhone. Instead, he silently shakes his head in disgust — first slowly, then faster. He’s livid.
“You have two choices when your organization does something horrible,” Manly finally says slowly. “You can be truthful and accept responsibility, or you can lie. It’s always better to say the truth, and ultimately costs less. What Engler is doing is further discrediting Michigan State.”
He suddenly blurts out in a mocking voice: “‘You’re a California lawyer?’ That’s all you got? When you’re dealing with the lives of hundreds of young women, it’s vile. Many universities have ‘Veritas’ in their motto. I don’t know the word for ‘Big Fat Liar’ in Latin, but that’s what Engler is.
“We’re aggressive,” Manly continues. “We don’t like people who screw kids. And we don’t like the people who protect them. If that makes me aggressive, I’ll accept that.”
He storms off to get coffee. “He’s so dumb!” Manly yells across the office to a worker. “Aggressive?”
In May, Michigan State settled with Nassar’s victims, many of them represented by Manly, for $500 million.
A STORM COMING
Behind the receptionist’s desk in the lobby of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi hangs “Coastal Storm,” by noted California Impressionist Granville Redmond. Windswept grass surrounds a solitary cypress next to a small path toward the beach. Ominous clouds cover the sky, with the bright blue sea far away.
Manly laughs when I ask if he’s the tree. “It’s just a painting, and I like art of the West,” he says. He scoffs when I suggest that maybe the painting signifies hope, because even storms go away.
“No, the storms are coming,” he shoots back. “So what are you going to do?”
Or maybe the storm is Manly. Tall and large, Manly, 52, possesses a thousand-yard stare that unnerves witnesses into spilling long-kept secrets. His team has wrought devastation against adversaries — bankrupt dioceses, fired school officials, witnesses who had nervous breakdowns during depositions, lawyers who lost their jobs.
Haters, who are legion, call him “Mad Dog” behind his back and worse things to his face. Former USA Gymnastics chairman Paul Parilla — himself an attorney — once called Manly a “fucking dickhead” during a deposition.
“He’s an ass,” says one attorney, who declined to be identified (most attorneys who have faced off against Manly either declined to be interviewed, spoke off the record or just never responded). “His cases are overblown, and he uses victims to get rich. Terrible person.”
But even Manly’s most bitter rivals concede he can’t be dismissed as a mere ambulance chaser.
“John is aggressive, resourceful and fearless,” says J. Michael Hennigan, the longtime attorney for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Hennigan once got a Superior Court judge to sanction Manly after he suggested Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials kept a witness from showing up at a deposition because they “hope[ed] the witness will die.”
“I heard John was loud, demanding and persistent before I worked with him,” says his law partner, Vince Finaldi. “He is — and that’s why he’s worked perfectly.”
Born in Northern California, Manly and his family moved to Orange County when he was 8. He was attending St. Catherine’s Military School in Anaheim, a private military boarding school. Manly frequently served as an altar boy for the Rev. Michael Driscoll, who ended up becoming a bishop and the cleanup man for the Diocese of Orange in its sex-abuse scandal. “Weird how that worked out, huh?” Manly says, sotto voce (his gallows humor is understandably sharp). “He was always nice to me.”
His elementary school experience still informs his world view. “The teachers were violent,” he says, hitting young boys for any infraction. Students were, too. “I was afraid a lot. The gymnastics thing reminds me of that. Feeling powerless. Being trapped and there’s no one to tell.”
Manly struggled with a 2.3 GPA at Mater Dei High School, then the largest Catholic school west of the Mississippi. He attended community college to get his grades up before getting a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a law degree from Pepperdine University in 1990. He soon got a job as an insurance defense lawyer, but wasn’t making money. With student loans looming and no good job prospects, Manly joined the Naval Reserve, which he found “refreshingly supportive and easy” in contrast to his previous scholastic experience.
That training got him a stint in Washington, D.C., with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, where he was in charge of a three-year backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests that he finished in three months. He credits that experience, and an eventual transition to real estate law, as a finishing school for his work on sex-abuse cases. “I learned how finance works,” he says. “How deals happen. And how power corrupts.”
He would’ve continued in real estate law (“it’s really lucrative”) if not for Ryan DiMaria. In 1997, the then-23-year-old told Manly that his former high school principal, Monsignor Michael Harris, had sexually molested him for years. The name rang a bell with Manly: Harris was his principal at Mater Dei.
Harris was nicknamed “Father Hollywood” for his talent in attracting donors. He was so popular in Orange County that when church officials forced him to resign in 1994 after multiple victims lodged allegations, hundreds of supporters gathered to sing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at a park.
Manly wasn’t impressed. In 2001, a full year before the Boston Globe series that brought the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal to the national spotlight, DiMaria received a $5.2 million settlement against the Orange Diocese — a record at the time for an individual clerical case. More importantly, Manly’s deep dives dug up documents that showed church officials had long known of Harris’ abusive ways — including a psychological report that concluded Harris was sexually attracted to teenage boys — which Manly publicly released.
That set a template Manly has followed ever since.
“There are a lot of attorneys who have come and gone in the last 15 years,” says Joelle Casteix, Western regional director for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and herself a former Manly client and fellow Mater Dei grad. “But the reason that he is still around doing these cases is because his nexus is in that moment. He gets it. His legal opponents will never understand that.”
ROUGH AND TUMBLE
“Of course I loved women’s gymnastics!” Manly deadpans. He’s enjoying dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana as his eldest son practices basketball nearby. Manly likes to try new foods, ferry around his kids or host people at his Newport Beach home, which has a gorgeous view of the Pacific.
These days, though, he also frequents college gymnastics meets. Many of his clients are now team or private coaches on the circuit, so Manly goes to offer moral support and to learn. “The level of injury these women competed with was astounding,” he says, nursing a mezcal-based Negroni. “Who can essentially get raped and win a gold medal the next day? These are very tough women.”
Women’s gymnastics didn’t register much with him until 2016, when a friend asked him if he was interested in taking on another sex-abuse case. By then, Manly was trying to wind down his firm’s concentration on molestations.
It had been an impressive run. Nearly a dozen Catholic dioceses across the United States had filed bankruptcies in the wake of Manly’s lawsuits. He played a starring role in “Deliver Us from Evil,” a 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary about an Irish priest who admitted to Manly under oath that he had molested at least 25 children in the Central Valley during the 1970s and beyond. His firm filed more than 80 lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District over its handling of third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, who fed his students semen-laced cookies but wasn’t arrested until a year after school officials quietly let him go.
Along with settlements came a longer-lasting legal legacy. A 2012 California Supreme Court ruling on a Manly case that had lost at the Superior Court and Appeals Court level allowed abused students to sue school districts for negligence. In 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that made it easier for school districts to fire problem teachers.
Manly was getting tired, though. Personal and professional relationships had suffered. His wife had survived cancer; their sons had reached high school age while their dad traveled for his work.
“It affects your life,” he admits. “Your family suffers. You suffer. All the stories of abuse get to you.”
He decided to hear out his friend’s possible gymnastics case as a favor. Manly flew to Northern California to meet with Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the bronze medal-winning 2000 U.S. Olympics women’s gymnastics team. She told him how Nassar, as team doctor, had repeatedly inserted his ungloved finger inside her vagina as a teen. Nassar claimed it was a standard medical treatment to treat pelvic injuries, yet he never allowed anyone else in the room while he administered it. Nearly 15 years after it happened, Dantzcher was ready to go public and wanted to know her legal options.
Manly believed her, but immediately did a background check on Dantzscher and her claims because “when you accuse someone of sexual assault, you better damn be right.” Physicians told him that Nassar’s practices were not only unethical, but also illegal. Manly found “bizarre” and “confusing” videos that Nassar had posted on YouTube lecturing about treatments while usually faceless gymnasts stood, sat silently or laid prone around him.
Not long after, the Indianapolis Star published an investigation that focused on how USA Gymnastics had covered up sexual abuse for decades. Manly’s office began receiving dozens of phone calls from other Nassar victims.
Still unsure of whether he wanted to take on another powerful institution, Manly talked with his law partner, Finaldi. The former Marine started with Manly as a clerk in 2004 while still at UCLA Law School. He credits their common military background for their success. “A lot of the way we do business is predicated on that structure,” Finaldi says. “It’s a lot of know-your-opponent stuff — their weaknesses, our strengths — then think outside the box to win.”
They decided to take on Dantzscher’s case. In September 2016, Manly and Finaldi filed the first lawsuit against USA Gymnastics for allowing Nassar to abuse for so long. By the time Manly appeared with Dantzscher and two other former Olympians on “60 Minutes” in February 2017, he represented around 40 Nassar victims.
The number is now over 300.
He sees parallels between USA Gymnastics and previous foes. “The lawyers are the same,” he says. “The playbook is the same. The disregard for victims is the same. The lack of concern is astounding.”
But what has surprised Manly is the public reaction to the USA Gymnastics scandal. Throughout his career, opponents have accused him of being anti-Catholic, anti-public schools, a money-grubber. But now, “What you’re seeing from everyday Americans is outrage. There’s a purity associated with young gymnasts, a selflessness and decency. When you see McKayla [Maroney] and Aly [Raisman] and Jordy [Jordyn Wieber] on the medal podium with the American flag behind them, it gives you chills. And this is how USA Gymnastics treated them?”
All three were members of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. women’s gymnastics team. All are Nassar victims.
ONE MORE SECRET
These days, Manly is happy in a way I’ve never seen him before. We first met 15 years ago, and I covered dozens of his cases for different publications. He was always great for a quote and for amazing stories. For more than a decade, we talked at least once a week, and I ended up knowing more about his personal and professional life than I do about some of my relatives or friends.
And yet it wasn’t until I was reporting this story that Manly told me a secret he had kept all this time.
We were in his office, and I can’t remember the question I asked. But his eyes suddenly softened as he told me two priests had molested him — one at age 10, another at 14 — and I had once reported on one of them.
I remembered that story immediately. Manly had tipped me off that a convicted priest who had made national news used to hang out at the Diocese of Orange’s headquarters. Manly didn’t represent any of the priest’s victims, so I asked then what the local angle was. “He had victims here,” he replied curtly back then. I did a quick story, but always remembered that it seemed light for a Manly scoop.
Now it made sense.
“A lot of the rage I had in the past was my own inability to accept what happened to me,” he quietly told me. “But I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without that happening to me. Gives meaning to what happened to me. You’re not just a lawyer. You can become a cheerleader and a therapist for survivors.”
We stared at each other for about a minute, silent. Then the phone rang. Manly excused himself. “Hey, Vince,” he yelled as he walked down the hallway. “Do you got that deposition yet?”