Richard McLeod: The immigration lawyer who's an Opus Dei disciple

by Joanna Wane / 28 September, 2017

Richard McLeod and his wife Rebekah begin each day with Mass at 7am with their year-old daughter, Magdalena.

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

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 faith-based 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.”

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.

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