A Frenzied Pace for Lawyer Behind Vatican Suits
By MONICA DAVEY
ST. PAUL – Jeffrey R. Anderson, the lawyer whose pursuit of the Roman Catholic Church has been perhaps the loudest, is the center of his own tornado. As employees race in and out of his ornate offices, Mr. Anderson is planning a news conference in Los Angeles about an abusive priest, answering calls from the family of a victim of another from Florida, and preparing a lawsuit in Milwaukee naming the Vatican and the pope as defendants. And this is only a Monday.
Mr. Anderson, 62, has been filing suits against priests and bishops since 1983 and, at least once before, against the Vatican itself. But a new wave of accusations reaching ever closer to Rome has emerged in recent weeks, helped along, in part, by Mr. Anderson?s discovery of previously undisclosed documents. Now he is receiving new calls and pressing new cases, with more court filings and news conferences, at an almost frenzied pace.
His critics call him a headline chaser and a self-promoter. And even some in the legal community refer to his role as co-counsel in so many abuse cases around the country as “the Jeff Anderson franchise system.”
Mr. Anderson is unapologetic: “Yes, I am driven. Yes, I am obsessed. Yes, I am. Maybe I’m even manic about it,” he said in an interview that filled the rare gaps between everything else whirling around him. “But it has little to do with their theology. It has everything to do with what they’re doing to kids.”
He turns loud, outraged, profane when he talks about individual cases. He cries a lot when he describes victims. He rarely stops to eat. He is extremely impatient, hyperfocused. In his own words, “A.D.D. untreated.”
David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called him “a ceaseless ball of energy.”
But Jeffrey S. Lena, a California lawyer representing the Holy See, said that while Mr. Anderson had performed an important function – “He has forced some dioceses to acknowledge that there had been shortcomings” – his legal maneuvers against the Vatican tended to operate from a misreading of the how the church is organized.
Mr. Anderson views the church as a purely “top-down” structure, Mr. Lena said, whereas much power is actually exercised locally by bishops without the direct involvement or knowledge of the Holy See.
For his part, Mr. Anderson sees it differently. “The reality is that we and others have been studying the hierarchical structure of this institution for a quarter of a century, and every single case demonstrates that control is at the top,” he said, adding that this central question is one that “ultimately will be heard in a courtroom.”
He will not say how much he has made from his pursuit of the church (he says he does not know). But he insists that the cases, which number more than a thousand (he says he has not counted), have never been about the money.
Yet in 2002, he estimated that he had at that point won more than $60 million in settlements from Catholic dioceses, and he acknowledges that in the most complicated cases, he may receive as much as 40 percent of a settlement or judgment.
Mr. Anderson drives a Lexus, leads his small firm from a former bank building replete with chandeliers, dark leather and marble, and co-owns with his wife a Victorian inn that promises “the ultimate experience in luxury, privacy and romance.”
“I don’t care what people think,” said Mr. Anderson, who is built like a high school wrestler and whose gravelly voice regularly crescendos into impassioned monologue. “If I had done this for money, I could have stopped doing this a long time ago. I could have chosen to not work 18 hours a day today, and gone and enjoyed whatever money I’d earned. I could have stopped pouring it into initiatives across the world right now that I’m funding and financing – that I’m pouring into what I consider the child civil rights movement.”
As for the news media, Mr. Anderson fully acknowledges his efforts to pursue attention – not for himself, he says, but for his clients. “There’s not an interview I refuse,” he said after completing a telephone interview with a South African radio station. He said he considered it “a moral imperative” to make public whatever he learns; it is the only way, he says, to protect other children.
Mr. Lena said the suit Mr. Anderson filed last week naming Pope Benedict XVI among the defendants was “over the top” and rife with exaggeration. The suit was on behalf of a former student at a Wisconsin school for the deaf, where the Rev. Lawrence Murphy is accused of abusing boys for almost two decades.
The New York Times was working on a different article last month when a reporter contacted Mr. Anderson. He provided documents about the Murphy case describing how efforts by Wisconsin church officials to subject Father Murphy to a canonical trial and remove him from the priesthood were halted after he wrote a letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, asking for a cessation of the trial.
“It shows,” Mr. Lena said, “how you can both create a media frenzy, and then capitalize on it. Jeff is very, very good at creating intense media interest, and then shaping a narrative for the press to write their stories around.” He added later: “He serves these media events up like nice little meals for reporters to chow down on, and they do.”
One huge hurdle to Mr. Anderson?s latest case against the Vatican and his previous one, filed in 2002, is that the Holy See has been recognized as a foreign sovereign and, as such, is generally immune from lawsuits in American courts.
But Mr. Anderson’s 2002 case, involving a priest in Oregon who, Mr. Anderson says, had previously been accused of abusing boys in Ireland and Chicago, has so far been allowed to proceed. Much is at stake on both sides if the Supreme Court, which could soon decide whether to hear the case, allows the suit to continue.
Mr. Anderson – once a hippie, a shoe buyer, an advertising executive (he lasted one day before quitting) and onetime law school washout – was raised Lutheran. He brought up three children with his first wife in the Catholic Church. And though he was once a “dedicated atheist,” he says he is deeply religious now, but not in any particular church. He has, by the way, sued over abuse in other faiths: Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon and so on.
As an alcoholic who quit drinking around his 50th birthday, Mr. Anderson says his experience helps him understand the pope’s comments in recent weeks about efforts to protect children. Denial, he says, is a powerful force.
And thus begins one of Mr. Anderson’s singular monologues, which his critics would call both disrespectful and inaccurate.
“Tell me one thing, Pontiff, you’ve done,” he began. “One act – not words – one act. Have you removed one bishop” Have you disciplined one cardinal? Have you disclosed one secret? Have you changed one protocol that requires secrecy?”
“He’s a dear man,” he continued. “He’s a wise theologian. But when it comes to this issue, he is as sick when it comes to understanding child abuse and his role in it as I was as a practicing alcoholic.”