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Inspired by Pope Francis, California legal clinic offers free services

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On June 7, the Pope Francis Legal Clinic opened in Oakland, California, on the property of the Cathedral of Christ the Light. (stock photo)

Oakland, Calif., Jul 19, 2016 / 12:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Free legal counsel and advice may sound too good to be true, but in the Diocese of Oakland, it’s a reality.

On June 7, the Pope Francis Legal Clinic opened in Oakland, California, on the property of the Cathedral of Christ the Light. “So many people have legal problems because law is everywhere,” Tom Greerty, director and co-founder of the clinic, told CNA. “What we try and do is relieve the hardships of people.” Experienced lawyers volunteer their time to offer free legal consulting, reconciliation, and resolution services to any adult in the community.  

Greerty, who recently retired from his legal practice in Martinez, California, said the idea started while he was earning his master’s degree in theological studies from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley.  

“My professor, Sister Marianne Farina, asked me to do a project which would be consistent with my job,” Greerty said. That project became the Pope Francis Legal Clinic, and in less than two years, others helped to make his idea a reality.

Nico Herrera, another attorney in the diocese, helped co-found the clinic. The Order of Malta, which runs a health clinic on the cathedral grounds, made space available for the new endeavor with the help of Tony Sanchez Corea, a member of the board. Bishop Michael C. Barber embraced the idea and had the clinic’s name in mind.

“I want this to be called the Pope Francis Legal Clinic,” the bishop told Greerty. “We agreed to that naturally,” Greerty said. Bishop Barber had a desire for the clinic to be about mercy, not just the law. “Mercy is ordinarily not about the law,” Greerty explained. “The law doesn’t think in terms of mercy. The law thinks in terms of justice.” But Greerty said the bishop wanted him and other faithful lawyers to bring mercy and reconciliation to legal problems that Greerty said are “almost always a breakdown in human relations.”

The lawyers spend an hour with each client. They listen to the client’s story, go over the history of the client’s problem, and try to understand the “nature of the problem.”

“We try to honor the memory of Pope Francis, and what he is trying to do with the Year of Mercy, to try and help people in a merciful way with the law,” Greerty said. He also noted that the idea could likely be replicated in other dioceses across the country.

Many Catholic lawyers are retired or far enough along in their practices to have the time and resources to establish similar clinics, he said.

Bishop Barber blessed the clinic on June 4, the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the clinic was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart as well.

Right now, the clinic is open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Appointments are required. According to Greerty, 10 lawyers have signed up to volunteer their services and more than 20 clients have already made appointments. “I think we may be onto something,” he said.  

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