Late high-profile attorney Robert Bennett put family, Catholic faith first, says cardinal

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Robert Bennett, right, then-head of the National Review Board's research committee, looks on alongside other review board members during a presentation of the "significant and disturbing" report on the clerical sex abuse crisis, at the National Press Club in Washington Feb. 27, 2004. Bennett, a Catholic, and one of the nation's leading criminal defense lawyers, died Sept. 10, 2023, at his home in Washington. He was 84. (OSV News photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The late Robert Bennett, a high-profile Washington attorney and founding member of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board on clergy sex abuse, was remembered at his Sept. 17 funeral Mass for “his devotion to his family and to the care of his neighbors and clients.”

“He went about his tasks with a calm and a quietness that gave ready assurance that he was rooted in faith and love,” said Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory in his homily. The cardinal was the main celebrant of the funeral Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Bennett died at his Washington home Sept. 10 surrounded by his family “and loyal dog,” said one obituary. The cause of death was kidney failure, according to his daughter Peggy Bennett. He was 84.

“Bob Bennett skillfully used words throughout his entire illustrious career. Today, however, words are so inadequate, so ineffective and so one-dimensional at this mournful moment, at this time in all of your lives,” Cardinal Gregory said.

“God’s faithful people from Holy Trinity Parish, the legal world, and friends and colleagues from throughout the Washington, D.C., community and indeed from all over our country,” he said, “join the Bennett family in prayer this Sunday afternoon not to pretend to be able to offer comfort with a few words, but to attempt to strengthen Bob’s family with a gesture of faith and by way of that gesture to seek consolation for ourselves as well.”

Cardinal reflects on Bennett’s life

Cardinal Gregory noted he first met Bennett when he was a bishop, heading the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, and serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He presided over the bishops’ meeting in Dallas in 2002 when they issued a landmark document in response to the crisis of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church — “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” It was revised in 2005, 2011 and 2018. Addressing the abuse crisis also resulted in formation of the lay-run National Review Board, of which Bennett was a founding member and served for two years.

“I first met Bob at a moment in time when our church clearly needed a person with his skills,” Cardinal Gregory said. “He entered my life when bishops were challenged to realize that we could only successfully serve the mission of the church with the assistance of wise and generous lay wisdom and support — an attitude that Pope Francis has encouraged all bishops the world over to rediscover as vitally important.”

As a public figure, “Bob commanded respect and he exercised influence and authority, but he never seemed to lose sight of the importance of faith over power, people over prestige, family over fame,” Cardinal Gregory said. “He always managed to put first things first in his life.”

“In our Eucharist today,” he continued, “we take heart at Bob’s ability to be a man of balance and proper perspective. In a world that continues to be badly divided along racial, economic, and ideological lines of dissimilarity, he managed to see clearly while others seemed hopelessly lost in the confusion of our age.”

Bennett’s background

Robert “Bob” Stephen Bennett was born Aug. 2, 1939, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Jesuit-run Brooklyn Prep (which closed in 1972) and was accepted by Jesuit-run Georgetown University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1961 and went to Georgetown’s law school, graduating in 1964. He spent another year at Harvard Law School, earning a master of laws degree in 1965.

From 1965 to 1967, Bennett served as a clerk for Judge Howard Francis Corcoran of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Before he entered private practice, Bennett was an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia until 1970.

A leading member of the defense bar since 1971, Bennett represented corporations, directors and officers in criminal, civil and Securities Exchange Commission enforcement matters. He advised management and boards of directors on preventive and remedial measures and assisted boards and audit committees in conducting internal investigations.

He handled several high-profile cases, including defending then-President Bill Clinton against sexual harassment charges and impeachment for lying about sexual incidents involving a White House intern.

For many years Bennett was a partner with the Skadden firm (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom). He headed its international government enforcement group and led the civil litigation practices of the firm’s Washington office. In September 2009, he went to the firm Hogan & Hartson, where he had been before joining Skadden, and worked in the litigation department.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he served as special counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics in several major investigations.

Bennett was the older brother of William “Bill” Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and was the author of “In The Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer” (2008).

Besides his brother and daughter Peggy, Robert Bennett is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ellen; two other daughters, Catherine and Sarah (Sam Butcher); and six grandchildren.

Julie Asher

Julie Asher is senior editor at OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @jlasher.