By Brenda Craig
St. Paul, MN: Attorney Jeff Anderson is a genuine firebrand. He has handled not hundreds, but thousands of cases on behalf of sexual abuse survivors across the US, and even outside the US over the last 25 years. “I have sued psychologists, psychiatrists, family members, movie stars, politicians, and every religious denomination you can think of including the Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah Witnesses and the Catholic Church,” he says.
Passionate, articulate, appropriately enraged, Anderson is a one-of-a-kind attorney.
He is also one of the first lawyers in the US to take the Catholic Church to court and publicly expose the plague of sexual abuse that had been aided and abetted inside the Catholic Church for heaven knows how long.
It was 1983 when a family walked into Anderson’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bewildered and confused, they began to tell him how a local Catholic priest, Father Thomas Adamson, had plied their son with alcohol, and then had sex with him.
“I learned this priest had a long history of sexual abuse, and the Catholic church had covered it up and concealed it, moving Adamson around from parish to parish for 20 years,” Anderson says.
Confronted with the facts, the diocese offered Anderson’s client a million dollars if they would settle the case quickly and secretly.
No deal, thought Jeff Anderson. “I knew that was wrong, my client knew that was wrong, and so we turned down a million dollars and went public.”
Ultimately, the courts awarded the young man $3.5 million dollars in damages.
About the same time, a similar case was being heard in Louisiana, and streams of sexual abuse survivors began to come forward.
“Then all hell broke loose,” says Anderson.
It was as if Anderson had kicked in the doors to the secret rooms of the Catholic Church. His efforts had exposed a knot of nasty sex offenders hiding within, as well as the hierarchy’s slothful and indifferent method of dealing with dirty priests.
It was a significant win and a major turning point.
Today, the public and the courts are more willing to believe sexual abuse survivors. “In the 1990s,” says Anderson, “people didn’t believe my clients or me, and people couldn’t imagine the Catholic Church would do these things.”
The statutes of limitations in many states are still a barrier for survivors of sexual abuse, Anderson laments. “It often takes years for victims to break their silence, and restrictive statutes of limitations frustrate our efforts to get relief for those wounded at the hands of authority figures.”
On this particular day, Jeff Anderson and his fellow attorney Michael Finnegan are driving to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They plan to depose priests who worked with the late Father Ryan Erikson.
Erikson hanged himself before he could ever be brought to trial, but it is believed he shot and killed two men; one of whom was a parishioner about to confront Erikson with accusations the priest was a molester.
Anderson represents the family of the man who would have caused unholy trouble for Erikson.
Despite Anderson’s legions of cases, his work is never done. When he gets a call from outside Minnesota, he looks for the best local trial lawyer he can find to collaborate with him on the case. “I want them to be credible trial lawyers, and I want them to be renegades. They have to be people who are used to going up against the establishment.”
The establishment is still a factor when Anderson’s engages in sexual abuse lawsuits, particularly with churches. “When you sue a religious organization, the power and influence it exercises in all quarters of society is daunting. The churches hire the best lawyers, the biggest firms, in the biggest cities and they often engage in hardball tactics to protect the organization and its members.”
After a quarter century handling sexual abuse cases involving the clergy, Anderson says he has a very low opinion of organized religion. He is a Lutheran by birth, but he has found his own personal kind of spirituality that does not depend upon pulpits and pews, or Sunday morning services.
Anderson has won millions of dollars on behalf of sexual abuse survivors. He sees his work with them as a partnership. “When we embark on this journey together we don’t engage in secrecy, or confidential settlements. We expose the offenders, and the culture that protected them. Whether we win or lose at the end of the day, we know they have been exposed and we protected other children,” says Anderson.
Jeffrey Anderson graduated from the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota (1975) and earned a B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1970).