Jeff Anderson on law school, legal tactics and his ultimate goal—deposing Pope Benedict XVI
Published in 2011 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 12, 2011
Jeff Anderson’s office might look like a museum, with its stained glass windows and vintage pulpit chairs. But the firm’s harried staff hardly resembles the hushed figures of the typical arts organization. Here, nobody pauses to admire the antiquities. They only stop to shout as Anderson speeds through.
“Nice article in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning,” bellows John Wodele, a publicist on contract with Jeff Anderson & Associates.
Little surprise there. Anderson, the world’s pre-eminent counsel for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, is a lightning rod for media coverage. Critics have admonished Anderson for being too cozy with the news media, since the attorney often hosts press conferences and leaks documents on abusive priests.
Wodele inquires about an interview request from The New Yorker magazine.
Anderson says he isn’t sure he wants to deal with Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the prestigious weekly. Toobin is fishing to write an in-depth profile on Anderson, which would require months of lengthy interviews. “It’s not about me,” Anderson says as he dashes past his co-workers and starts climbing an elaborate staircase to his second-floor office. Halfway up, without breaking stride, he turns to finish the thought. “It’s about the kids!”
Jeff Anderson & Associates is situated within a historic Romanesque building in downtown St. Paul. There’s antique plasterwork, oak paneling. Hanging outside Anderson’s private office, there’s a painting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
In one corner in his office, there’s a classicist sculpture depicting a Steinbeck-like scene: a woman breastfeeds a famished clergyman. In another corner, a painting of Anderson’s hero, his inspiration for going to law school—Clarence Darrow.
Another notable accessory is the Kleenex—two fresh boxes, one on the conference table and another on Anderson’s desk.
Anderson sits down, stretches his arms and starts to recount the origins of his career. In the mid-’60s, Anderson was a college dropout and a young parent. “A kid with a kid,” he says. After returning to the University of Minnesota to finish his undergraduate degree, Anderson became involved with the peace and civil rights movements. “I became engaged with the world for the first time,” he remembers.
Graduating in 1970 with a double-major in journalism and political science, Anderson bounced between jobs. He worked in advertising; he sold shoes. “None of the jobs felt meaningful,” he says. “Then I read Attorney for the Damned about Clarence Darrow. Suddenly I thought, ‘Wow, look what he did!’ So I said, ‘Maybe I’ll go to night school.’”
Anderson struggled through William Mitchell College of Law. “I could not identify with a study of the past when I wanted to focus on the future,” he says. His awakening didn’t come until his third year in school. Anderson volunteered for the college’s legal aid clinic, and successfully defended a homeless man against charges of indecent exposure (the man was black and was caught urinating in a church that had a white, wealthy congregation). “The thing lit me up,” says Anderson. “I was able to help that man and argue it was racial discrimination. The case was dismissed and I said, ‘Oh, my God! I had something to do with it.’
“So, when I got out of law school, I started my own practice. I started to identify with the dispossessed, the disempowered and the oppressed,” says Anderson. Thanks to a referral from a colleague, Anderson was hired in 1983 by the family of Greg Riedle, a troubled young man and former altar boy at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church of St. Paul Park. Riedle claimed to have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of his priest, Rev. Thomas Adamson.
After a two-year discovery period—replete with perjuring bishops and an anonymous source—Anderson and his team built a rock-solid case against Adamson. They also discovered bishops from the Diocese of Winona and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who knew of Adamson’s tendencies and had lied under oath about his behavior. In fact, the priest had been unloaded onto St. Thomas Aquinas after another scandal involving sexual misconduct in another parish in Winona.
Though the criminal statute of limitations had passed, Anderson and the Riedles moved ahead with a civil suit. In 1984, the defendants—the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of Winona, and St. Thomas Aquinas—called to offer a handsome settlement, up to $1 million. The only problem, says Anderson, was that the church asked for something in return—they wanted the Riedles to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Anderson couldn’t sleep that night. The next day he phoned Riedle and said, “Greg, there’s other kids.” As Anderson remembers it, Riedle told him: “Turn it down. I trust you. But do it quick before I change my mind.”
From a legal standpoint, Anderson faces a recurring obstacle—by the time clients muster the courage to retain Anderson’s services, it’s often too late for criminal charges. Minnesota has a special statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases (Minn. Stat. 541.073), which provides the plaintiff with six years after they “knew or had reason to know that the injury was caused by the sexual abuse.” But, says Anderson, “the courts routinely deny justice because of statute of limitations.”
“[The solution] I use most defensibly is fraud,” says Anderson. Statutes of limitations apply differently to fraud—in Minnesota, for example, it doesn’t begin to run until the fraudulent concealment is reasonably discovered.
Not unlike employers who keep confidential personnel files, the church keeps extremely secret files on priests and other employees. What’s more, the Catholic Church adheres to canon law, a continental system of codified laws that emphasize secrecy and confidentiality. (The church’s legal system more closely resembles those of France and Italy.) Canon law even requires each diocese to keep secret archives on sensitive materials, including all penal investigations.
When Anderson finally gets his hands on them, he says, the clandestine documents often reveal a disturbing trend: The church has the habit of quietly removing abusive priests from their posts. From there, the men are ferreted to rehabilitation centers (per church protocol with alcoholic clergy) and transferred to dioceses in other cities, states, even countries. Anderson was among the first laymen to access these files and uncover the church’s troubling practice.
“I kicked open the door into a world of deceit, deception, lies, duplicity and secrecy,” he says. “When the church tells its community that the priest is fit, safe and celibate, when they knew he isn’t any one of the three, that is a misrepresentation. That is a fraud.”
Ever since the Riedle case, “My phone started ringing and it hasn’t stopped,” says Anderson. His firm has been involved with high-profile cases against the archdioceses of Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and more. In all, the firm has filed more than 2,000 sex-abuse cases against the Catholic Church and other institutions.
“I work from the heart, not the head,” says Anderson.
This explains why the litigator is cagey on legal topics. Curiously, Anderson seems more comfortable when the subject turns to the divine. The agnostic attorney mentions his work is fulfilling—“it nourishes my spirit.” He points to a big settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which stipulated the mass removal of abusive priests, and says, “Think of the kids whose souls were saved!”
Anderson’s relationships with clients are close. “When you go to Jeff’s office, you’re greeted with a hug,” explains Jim Keenan of Savage, a current client. Keenan relies on Anderson for emotional support. “I’ve got Jeff’s personal cell phone. I’ve called [Anderson] at his office at 2 in the morning when I was having terrible times, and I got a callback,” he says.
Critics accuse Anderson of baiting the media with the heartbreaking stories of his clients. “Sure, he’s a headline-chaser, but he’s only being proactive,” says Anson D. Shupe, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University and author of the book Rogue Clerics: The Social Problem of Clergy Deviance. “Rather than settle out of court and seal the record, Jeff has learned the church is impervious to all but the most intense pressure.”
This explains why Anderson’s settlements tend toward the creative, with mechanisms for exposing abusers to the media. A recent example is the March 2010 settlement Anderson reached with Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville. It stipulated for the release of the names of 17 monks with “credible allegations of sexual abuse,” in addition to an undisclosed dollar amount on behalf of nine plaintiffs.
Others wonder whether Anderson is motivated by the hefty payouts from these settlements. The Washington Post, in 2002, wrote that Anderson himself estimated that total recoveries amounted to $60 million. He’s no longer willing to update that figure and he does not publically speak about his own compensation. “We’re doing what we can to protect kids from further harm, and we continue to work with the wounded,” he insists. Whatever the guiding purpose, Anderson collects as much as 40 percent from each settlement. His largest settlement to date was a 2007 settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for around half a billion dollars.
“All roads lead to Rome.” Anderson is fond of saying that. Over the years, he has come to believe that Vatican officials are ultimately responsible for swapping priests and enforcing the culture of secrecy. So he’s set his sights on an ambitious target: He wants to sue the Holy See, the centralized government of the Catholic Church. In particular, Anderson wants to depose Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. The pontiff played a dubious role in sex-abuse scandals in his former job as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the CDF, the office that investigates abuse of the sacraments.
“I think Anderson misunderstands or misrepresents the structure of the church,” says Robert Kennedy, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas and co-director of the University’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy. “Anderson assumes the Catholic Church is structured like a modern corporation with the pope as the CEO and the bishops as vice presidents.” Kennedy contends that church structure is more decentralized, particularly in the U.S., where bishops govern with relative autonomy. Prior to 2003, says Kennedy, bishops weren’t even required to report sexual abuse to the CDF. One exception was priests who used the confessional to solicit for sex, which constituted an abuse of the sacrament of reconciliation.
What’s more, the Holy See is a sovereign city-state. Therefore the Catholic Church is protected from U.S. lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976.
The court adopted the tort exception to the FSIA, allowing Anderson to proceed and sue the Holy See in 2002 on behalf of an Oregon man. Anderson’s client alleges the church knew about the behavior of his abuser, Rev. Andrew Ronan, who was moved from Ireland to Chicago to Portland during the 1950s and ’60s. The Catholic Church challenged Anderson’s suit, arguing its immunity to U.S. law under FSIA. After an appeals process, the U.S. Supreme Court green-lighted Anderson’s suit in 2010.
In April 2011, Anderson served the Vatican with court papers again, but only after making an astounding discovery in another case. From 1950 to 1974, Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy may have molested upward of 200 boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis. Murphy attacked at least one boy in the confessional—an abuse of the sacraments. He was suffering from old age and ill health in 1996, when the Milwaukee Archbishop wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope, urging a canonical trial and the eventual defrocking of the pedophilic priest. But Rev. Murphy penned his own letter to Ratzinger in 1998, after which investigations were called off before Murphy’s death later that year. He died still a priest. One of Anderson’s staff attorneys discovered Murphy’s letter in March 2010.
It’s too soon to tell whether Anderson’s legal crusade will reach the Vatican. What’s certain is the attorney’s impact on the American Catholic Church. In response to legal pressures, U.S. bishops recently announced a zero-tolerance policy for clergy engaging in sexual misconduct with minors. “If anybody ever writes a history on all this, Jeff will go down as a pre-eminent figure,” says Shupe, the sociologist.
Anderson and Keenan, the client, used the identical phrase to characterize church reforms: “smoke and mirrors.” “We see them changing on the surface,” says Anderson. “But until these secrets are revealed on a global level, I remain deeply concerned.”
Anderson has already taken on cases in Australia, Brussels, Belgium and Mexico (immigration officials in the latter famously booted Anderson out of the country in 2006). Anderson recently opened an office in London and hired a barrister in Ireland. Yet, the crusader remains most optimistic about his efforts via the American judiciary. “Our U.S. system is more transparent. Individuals who’ve been oppressed or wronged have better access to justice and truth,” he says. “Here, we have the ability to expose things like in no other country.”