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On October 24, 2004, following a six-day trial in federal court, Ofelia Canals won a major victory against her former employer and one of the most powerful institutions in South Florida: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.
A jury believed her contention that archdiocesan officials asked her to commit perjury. The religious leaders had hoped to protect the church from claims that institutional negligence led to the sexual molestation of a five-year-old boy. But Canals asserted that she refused to lie and consequently was harassed, tormented, and then fired. The jury awarded her $40,000 plus attorneys' fees.
But four months later, on February 28, 2005, U.S. District Judge José E. Martinez overturned the verdict. At the time, he didn't mention his apparent conflict of interest: Martinez is a Eucharistic minister, a spiritual leader who wears a holy robe, serves communion to parishioners during Catholic mass, and embodies the spirit of Christ.
"He's the guy behind the Body of Christ," says Eddie Cruz, a legal assistant on the team that represented Canals.
That's right: The 65-year-old Martinez overturned a verdict to protect the Archdiocese of Miami, an organization in which he is an agent.
Although the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Martinez was not required to recuse himself, his decision to hear the case and not inform the attorneys of his position with the Catholic Church raises questions about his impartiality.
The roots of the conflict date back more than two decades. Beginning in 1983, Canals worked as the head teacher at Centro Mater Child Care Center, a day care run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, a nonprofit organization partially funded by government grants.
In 1995 Canals transferred to a new facility run by the archdiocese called Centro Mater West, near Okeechobee Road in Hialeah Gardens. Her job was to help build the staff and teaching programs. Both Centro Mater facilities receive public funding through Head Start, a federal program designed to help children under age six and their low-income families.
"I was the head teacher of the three levels infants, day care, and after-school," Canals explained in Spanish during a deposition. Her responsibilities included "everything," as she put it. If there was trouble with another teacher or the air-conditioning unit was broken, everyone turned to Canals.
But in July 2001, her star began to fade. She was having particular trouble with another teacher, Zita de la Sierra, whom she had reprimanded several times for leaving children unattended. On July 5, after discovering that de la Sierra had again left kids alone in a classroom despite the warnings, Canals described the problem in a memo to Miriam Roman, administrator for Centro Mater West. Roman allegedly told Canals that she was being "unjust and unfair."
One week later, Canals's worst fears were realized. After de la Sierra left class once again, a five-year-old boy walked out, crossed a five-lane street, and was picked up by an unknown man in the parking lot of a Sedano's supermarket. The man sexually molested the boy and returned him home later that night. (Although the boy is identified in court papers, New Times is withholding his name.)
The head teacher recalled in a deposition that the day after the molestation, Lucia Vicencio, a senior official with the Archdiocese of Miami, confronted Canals. Vicencio allegedly wanted Canals to pretend her memo didn't exist. She demanded that Canals act as if she had never warned officials about de la Sierra's habit of leaving her class unattended.
"We are going to start a new life. We are going to rip up all your memos," Canals remembered Vicencio telling her.
Canals told Vicencio that if she were ever called to testify, she would talk about the memo and her warnings. "I was not going to lie in a court of law," Canals said.
In court testimony, Vicencio denied this conversation occurred.
On September 4, 2001, three months after the boy was molested, Canals was fired for "insubordination."
Three months later, the family of the five-year-old filed a negligence lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The archdiocese settled out of court for $125,000. Canals was never asked to testify.
On August 19, 2003, Canals filed her lawsuit in federal court, alleging, among other things, that the archdiocese illegally fired her because she was unwilling to testify. She claimed protection under the Florida Whistleblower Act, which shields employees who come forward to state authorities after being asked to do something illegal or unethical.
Her case was assigned to Martinez, a 2002 appointee of President George W. Bush. A short, squat man, Martinez was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Coral Gables. After graduating from the University of Miami School of Law, he specialized in defending large corporations in product-liability lawsuits. During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California questioned whether Martinez could be objective in hearing liability cases against large organizations. He said he could be impartial in any case.
"I believe I am smart enough to understand that there are both sides to an issue, and I can take either side equally well," Martinez told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2002. "And I think I will do the right thing and the fair thing."