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Lawyer in church sex-abuse case locked in bitter divorce battle

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Ray Boucher walked out of a downtown Los Angeles courthouse six years ago the envy of the legal field. As the lead attorney in the landmark $660-million sexual-abuse settlement with the Catholic archdiocese, he had won long-denied justice for hundreds of victims and made himself and other attorneys very rich. Flanked by grateful clients, he faced a crush of cameras with the confidence of a man who had achieved a new level of professional acclaim and personal wealth.

These days Boucher returns frequently to that same courthouse. He walks alone up the steps where reporters once mobbed him, rides the elevator past the courtroom where a judge praised his tireless work for victims and trudges into his divorce trial. The site of his greatest glory, he says, has become a place he dreads.

Boucher's wife left him in 2007, shortly after the clergy settlement was announced. What followed has been a divorce fight epic even by L.A. standards. For the last five years, the former couple has clawed at each other over money. The jaw-dropping cost of the court battle — $8 million in legal bills and growing, by Boucher's estimation — drove him to file for bankruptcy last year.

"There was just nothing left. Everything was gone," he said.

Boucher vs. Boucher has all the usual elements of a nasty split: restraining orders, allegations of infidelity, public screaming matches. The real conflict, however, is over what her attorneys have called "the single largest asset" of the marriage: the clergy fees. Under California law, Christine Roberts, the former Mrs. Boucher, is entitled to 50% of his earnings during their 10 years together.

But how much of the clergy case fees Boucher earned after the separation — to which Roberts has no right — is in dispute. As a result, the trial that has played out in fits and starts over the last year and a half has been a rehash of what happened behind the scenes in the litigation with the L.A. Archdiocese.

The couple was legally divorced in 2008, but the feud over finances continued to churn on, filling more than 30 volumes stacked along the wall of L.A. County Superior Court Judge Marc Marmaro's courtroom.

Boucher was a leader in litigation against the Catholic Church in California. He pushed for a temporary easing of statute of limitation laws a decade ago and ended up with hundreds of clients across the state. Fellow plaintiffs' attorneys voted him as their chief negotiator to speak on behalf of more than 500 people who alleged they had been molested by priests in L.A. For their work, Boucher and other lawyers got about 40% of the settlement. Roberts' attorneys estimated that Boucher walked away with $13 million before taxes, a sum that he said in an interview was "probably right."

Determining how much of that belongs to Roberts is a key issue at the trial. Testimony concluded Friday, and a judge is expected to render a decision this spring.

Boucher claims that his work on the settlement continued for many years beyond their 2007 separation as he sought to force the archdiocese to turn over the personnel files of abusive priests. Those records were finally released in January. Boucher argues that this work after their separation means Roberts should receive far less than half of the clergy fees. One client, Manny Vega, told the judge in a declaration that he would have sued Boucher for legal malpractice if he had not pursued the documents. Roberts' lawyer has suggested that Boucher is overstating the amount of work he did on the file release.

On a recent Wednesday, Boucher sat on the witness stand, his shoulders slumped. It was his eighth day of testimony and he delivered his answers about wire transfers of client money in a monotone. When the judge called the lawyers into chambers, the former husband and wife were left alone in the well of the courtroom. As the minutes ticked on, they stared straight ahead, never acknowledging one another.

"It's hard for me to go to court anymore," he said. When people talk about the failures of the justice system, he said, he now can relate. "And that's a taste I would prefer not to have."

Roberts has cycled through five lawyers, including some of the city's priciest divorce specialists, and Boucher's counsel, who has counted Jennifer Lopez and Robert De Niro as clients, bills $900 per hour. Even so, Boucher ends up questioning witnesses.

He cross-examined his adversary in the abuse litigation, archdiocese general counsel Margaret G. Graf, as well as a former junior lawyer in his firm. That attorney, Anthony De Marco, kept glancing at Boucher, his former boss, as he answered questions about how the money was divided between victims.

"We have to translate human suffering into dollar figures, that's the nature," De Marco testified.

The story of their meeting is a testament to Boucher's charisma in the courtroom. Roberts was a 21-year-old college student serving as jury foreperson in a pesticide exposure trial that Boucher, 32, was litigating in San Diego against a team of corporate attorneys. The panel awarded Boucher's client nearly $1 million, and he called her several days later.

"I thought he was cute," Roberts recalled in a recent interview. They married in 1996 and lived initially in a rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. They had the first of their two sons while living there.

"I drove a Ford Escort," she said, tearing up at the memory of their humble start. "We had nothing."

Boucher's law career took off not long after and he co-founded the Beverly Hills firm Kiesel, Boucher & Larson. The family began enjoying what Roberts' lawyers have described as a "luxurious lifestyle" — a five-bedroom house in a gated community, private jets, lavish vacations and over-the-top parties, including a $20,000 Halloween celebration for 200 guests.

Beginning in 2002, Boucher was working long hours on the clergy cases. Roberts was a stay-at-home mom for their sons.

"I thought, and I think anybody that knew us thought, we had the perfect marriage," Boucher said. "If we ended up losing everything and in a rent-controlled apartment with [the children] that would be all right."

But through her attorney, John Heubeck, Roberts said there were long-standing problems that went unaddressed because "everything else, including normal family life" took a back seat to the clergy case. In one court filing, she accused him of having multiple affairs, an allegation he denies.

"The issues … were simply put on hold all that time and never confronted or discussed," Heubeck said.

In the months before the July 2007 settlement, Boucher was working "round-the-clock." He said he imagined a life after the clergy payout where he could scale back his hours, do human-rights work in Africa and spend time with his family.

In court papers, his lawyers have alleged that in the same period, his wife was planning to leave. In May, she met a man at the gym. In June, she spent $24,000 on clothes at high-end boutiques.

Boucher has recounted his version of the end of their marriage in court papers, conversations with clients and friends, and press interviews. He says that she came to him five days after the settlement and said she was leaving because she "needed to find herself."

Roberts said through her lawyer that that account is a lie, designed to cast her in a bad light. Her attorney has submitted credit card statements to the court showing the family was vacationing at Disneyland the day Boucher claims she told him she wanted a divorce. Through her lawyer, Roberts said that they began discussing their problems after the settlement, but it wasn't until two months later that she moved out of the house as part of a "trial separation."

"It would have [made] no difference to the future of their marriage if the settlement announced in July 2007 had been for $600 million or $600,000," her attorney wrote in an email.

The couple initially tried to divide up property and custody of their sons, now teenagers, without attorneys, but within months, that effort fell apart. She accused him of trying to short-change her. He had a private investigator follow the man she was dating and had him questioned under oath about a Range Rover and spa treatments that Roberts bought for him. There were dueling requests for restraining orders, Boucher was ordered to anger management classes, and even conversations between lawyers became ugly.

"This letter shall also confirm that you stated to me that there is 'no good will for Chrissy' and 'it will be a blood bath' in what I understood to be a reference concerning custody," an attorney for Roberts wrote to Boucher's lawyers in 2011.

There is no end in sight. After the judge makes a decision about the clergy fees, both sides can appeal and there are a host of additional issues, including the couple's home, awaiting court attention. There's also Boucher's bankruptcy, which is on hold pending the outcome of the family court trial. Boucher said it could be two years before the divorce case concludes.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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