Auck­land im­mi­gra­tion and hu­man rights lawyer Richard Mcleod talks about fall­ing back in love with Catholi­cism and be­com­ing a dis­ci­ple of Opus Dei.

North & South - - Cover Story -

It’s not of­ten a lawyer turns down lu­cra­tive work be­cause it’s against his prin­ci­ples. But as a com­mit­ted Catholic, Richard Mcleod’s be­liefs some­times clash with the cases that come his way.

When he won asy­lum for a sex worker fac­ing per­se­cu­tion in her home coun­try, the woman’s em­ployer was so im­pressed he asked Mcleod to help bring some strip­pers into New Zealand for him. “I had to po­litely de­cline, much to his cha­grin.”

Morally con­ser­va­tive? Per­haps. But Mcleod, who helped clear Al­ge­rian asy­lum seeker Ahmed Zaoui after he was held in prison as a pos­si­ble se­cu­rity risk, fol­lows a more nu­anced code of ethics.

As a refugee ad­vo­cate, he’s rep­re­sented peo­ple ac­cused of war crimes – from child sol­diers in Liberia to in­for­mants for the Soviet regime in Afghanistan – and gay men from re­pres­sive coun­tries such as Iran.

This year, he ap­peared be­fore the Health Se­lect Com­mit­tee to present a sub­mis­sion against euthana­sia, be­cause as a Catholic he be­lieves life is sa­cred. True to his faith, he also op­poses con­tra­cep­tion. Yet he’d even con­sider going into bat for an abor­tion­ist fac­ing per­se­cu­tion. “I’d prob­a­bly find it a very in­ter­est­ing con­flict to grap­ple with,” he says. “I’ve cer­tainly acted for peo­ple who’ve been ac­cused of and, in some cases, have com­mit­ted crimes against hu­man­ity, and I don’t have any dif­fi­culty eth­i­cally or morally with that.

“If they’re at risk of tor­ture or ex­tra­ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tion in their home coun­try, that’s en­tirely con­sis­tent with my be­lief in the sanc­tity of life: to fight to pre­serve their life, even if they have not pre­served the lives of oth­ers.”

Mcleod is one of a few hun­dred fol­low­ers in New Zealand of Opus Dei, a spir­i­tual move­ment within the Catholic Church that was de­picted as a ruth­less se­cret so­ci­ety in Dan Brown’s re­li­gious thriller The Da Vinci Code (a book Mcleod diplo­mat­i­cally de­scribes as a “great work of fic­tion”).

Dom­i­nated by lay peo­ple, many of them suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sion­als like Mcleod, Opus Dei calls on its sup­port­ers to find “ho­li­ness” in sec­u­lar life, not only at church on Sun­day. “It’s not about run­ning off to a cave and spend­ing our lives med­i­tat­ing, or with­draw­ing from so­ci­ety, but to be real in the world,” he says. “Not to be a lawyer who’s Catholic, but to be a Catholic lawyer. Bill English faces the same chal­lenge as Prime Min­is­ter.”

In his teens, Mcleod was both shaped and scarred by his years as a day boy at St Pa­trick’s College in Sil­ver­stream, where he and his older brother were badly bul­lied. He’s still try­ing to work out how much of his nat­u­ral em­pa­thy for the un­der­dog is the re­sult of what he was taught through his Catholic ed­u­ca­tion or of what he ex­pe­ri­enced.

“It helped me flour­ish in many ways, with the em­pha­sis on build­ing char­ac­ter and striv­ing for ex­cel­lence in ev­ery­thing you do. On the other hand, it also brought me quite a lot of hurt. If you didn’t fit the mould, there’d be reper­cus­sions, and that stayed with me.”

Drift­ing from church after he left uni­ver­sity, Mcleod found a vo­ca­tion in refugee law. His first client was a Catholic woman who’d been per­se­cuted by the Com­mu­nist regime in Viet­nam and spent years in a Hong Kong de­ten­tion cen­tre – where she mar­ried and had two chil­dren – be­fore be­ing threat­ened with de­por­ta­tion. He won her claim and the fam­ily

was re­set­tled in the United States.

Back in Auck­land, he set up his own firm in 2002, but the des­per­ate and de­mand­ing na­ture of many refugee and asy­lum cases grad­u­ally took its toll. “I was emp­ty­ing my­self try­ing to do work that was mean­ing­ful and ful­fill­ing, but the well had run dry,” he says. “Spir­i­tu­ally, I felt like I was run­ning on empty.”

Walk­ing past St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral on the way to his cen­tral-city cham­bers each morn­ing, Mcleod be­gan slip­ping in­side for a few mo­ments of si­lence. He started at­tend­ing Mass and slowly “fell in love with the Catholic faith again” – los­ing his heart in more ways than one. TVNZ re­porter and midlife Catholic con­vert Tim Wil­son met his wife, Rachel, at St Pa­trick’s and in­tro­duced Mcleod to her sis­ter, Re­bekah.

Mcleod, who’s 47, had re­signed him­self to re­main­ing sin­gle after mak­ing the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to end a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship be­cause he felt the lack of a shared faith would drive a wedge be­tween them. He and Re­bekah mar­ried in 2015, and go to daily Mass at 7am with their year-old daugh­ter, Mag­dalena.

Asked how he rec­on­ciles the faith­based na­ture of re­li­gion with the ev­i­dence-based pro­fes­sion of law, he says an over-zeal­ous de­mand for “facts” can stop peo­ple see­ing the truth in front of them – and all the ev­i­dence he needs is right there in the gospels.

Hu­man rights re­main high on his agenda. In March, he joined lawyers Deb­o­rah Man­ning and Rod­ney Har­ri­son QC (his co-coun­sels on the Zaoui case) to call for an in­quiry into claims by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephen­son in their book Hit & Run that New Zealand SAS troops killed Afghan vil­lagers in a 2010 raid cov­ered up by the De­fence Force. “The Op­er­a­tion Burn­ham case is at the very heart of the work we love to do – act­ing for the ‘lit­tle peo­ple’ against the ac­tions of the state.”

Mcleod will also be throw­ing his weight against David Sey­mour’s End of Life Choice Bill, which he says re­flects a grow­ing “cul­ture of death” in New Zealand. “The Church’s view is that we be­lieve in the in­her­ent worth and dig­nity of ev­ery hu­man be­ing, from con­cep­tion to death, and that must be de­fended and pro­moted at all costs.”

Richard Mcleod and his wife Re­bekah be­gin each day with Mass at 7am with their yearold daugh­ter, Mag­dalena.

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