St. Paul, Minn — Jeff Anderson has heard it all.
He’s been called a scourge. A parasite. A media-monger hellbent on bringing down the Catholic Church.
But the Minnesota lawyer who’s made a career of suing the most powerful religious institution in the world over its handling of clergy sex abuse cases pays no mind.
“I don’t care what people think, and I don’t try to control it,” said Anderson, the lead attorney in civil fraud cases pending against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who is now representing those victims in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy.
“I’m answering what I believe to be a public imperative – a moral imperative – to make what we have come to know public,” he said. “I make no apologies for this, and I never will. I’m not doing this to promote me. I’m doing this to protect the kids.”
Anderson is, by all accounts, the nation’s most prolific and successful litigator in sex-abuse cases against the church.
He is responsible for the release of thousands of pages of church documents illuminating the scope of the crisis. And he’s pushed in recent years to implicate not just bishops but the Vatican and the pope himself in what Anderson alleges – and the church steadfastly denies – is a global conspiracy to cover up decades of sexual abuse of children.
Though he’s yet to win a case in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee bankruptcy filing has stalled pending lawsuits against it, Anderson and his team of lawyers have scored significant victories elsewhere.
In separate rulings over the last year, federal courts have paved the way for Anderson to sue the Vatican in Oregon, and to use a 200-year-old human-rights
law to bring a Mexican abuse case into the U.S. courts – both first-of-their-kind cases.
“He has certainly been the driving force in this large movement,” said Jason
Berry, a New Orleans writer and practicing Catholic who has documented the
crisis since the 1980s and profiles Anderson in his upcoming book, “Render Unto
Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”
“He’s a warrior,” Berry said of Anderson. “He fights aggressively for his
clients and has a very deep passion for people who have been abused.”
Critics offer a different view. Bill Donohue of the New York-based Catholic
League for Religious and Civil Rights accuses Anderson of waging a vendetta
against the church, at the exclusion of other offenders.
Critics also suggest he’s in it for the money, or harboring some
anti-Christian bias. And they argue that his continued focus on litigation is
undermining the good works of the church.
“You have to ask how much litigation is too much, when it diverts so many
resources from programs and makes everybody adversaries,” said Mark Chopko, a
Washington, D.C., attorney and former chief counsel to the U.S. Conference of
Anderson, 63, is an unlikely millionaire whose own story of failure and
redemption – and of abuse in his own family – informs his life and work.
A recovering alcoholic and college dropout who once flunked out of law school
(he disliked its “arcane” rules about attendance), Anderson honed his outrage in
the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
He spent his early career in the Ramsey County public defender’s office and
built a private practice representing clients at the margins, including many in
the African-American community and homosexuals arrested in raids on bathhouses
in St. Paul in the 1970s.
His first case against the Catholic Church involved Father Thomas Adamson, a
Minnesota priest who was accused of molesting several boys in the 1970s and
In 1983, almost two decades before the sex abuse crisis would erupt in
Boston, John and Janet Riedle walked into Anderson’s St. Paul office seeking his
advice. The couple had just learned that their adult son, Greg, had been
sexually assaulted years earlier by Adamson, who was still in their parish.
Distraught, they said they reported it to then-Bishop Robert Carlson, now
archbishop of St. Louis, who told them there wasn’t much he could do about it.
And days later, they said, they received a $1,600 check in the mail.
“They had the check in their hands and they were crying, saying, ‘Mr.
Anderson, what should we do?’ ”
Anderson took their son’s case and spent the next few years interviewing
witnesses and deposing bishops in two dioceses. When church lawyers offered to
settle for $1 million, he said, he was shocked that they would ask for his
client’s silence with “the usual confidentiality agreement.”
“I said, ‘Usual? What do you mean usual?’ ” Anderson said, his voice rising
with indignation. “Then I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve done this before? How
many times?’ ”
Anderson said he took the offer to Greg Riedle, hoping he’d reject it.
“I started crying, saying Greg, they’ve done this before and they’re going to
do it again, and I can’t be part of it,” said Anderson, who’s been known to weep
when telling the story, including on this occasion.
He says Riedle told him: “Do what you have to do. But do it quick before I
change my mind.”
Anderson filed the lawsuit, walked back to his office and called local news
outlets, kicking off what would become a media frenzy.
“All of a sudden, more victims of Adamson and other priests started to come
forward. It was a tipping point,” Anderson said.
“When I went public with it and saw the magnitude of the problem, I realized
that this is what I needed to do. It lit me up, and it still does.”
Anderson would later come to understand the Riedles’ anguish in a more
personal way. Fifteen years later, he said, he learned his adult daughter had
been molested by a former priest-turned-psychologist she’d seen during her
parents’ divorce when she was 8.
“Learning about (his daughter) brought me to another layer of understanding
of the magnitude of this kind of betrayal,” Anderson said. “I’ve always had a
deep connection to the pain of the survivors. . . . But this brought me even
closer in a way that makes me part of who I am.”
The Riedle case would shake Anderson’s own spiritual foundation.
Raised Lutheran, Anderson had married a Catholic and brought his first three
children up in the faith.
He was never truly devout in either. But, as he uncovered the crimes and
deceptions in the Adamson case, he began to seriously question his beliefs in
organized religion of any kind.
“I went through a crisis of faith . . . and a period of time in where I
would have described myself as an atheist. Looking back, I think I confused
faith and religions,” he said.
Today, Anderson belongs to Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn.,
where his second wife and three youngest children are active. He supports it
financially, especially its missionary work, but attends only for sacraments or
Anderson espouses a deep spirituality, born of his recovery from alcoholism,
that draws from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and other traditions.
“I’m a deist, I believe in a higher power, in God, and it’s a very important
part of my life,” he said.
Anderson’s own hardships and journey are part of what draws many victims to
him, said Jeffrey Lena, a California attorney who represents the Vatican.
“He has a sort of missionary zeal,” he said.
“And on some level he’s managed to intertwine a salvation story about his own
life with the salvation narratives of survivors of abuse.”
Thousands of clients
Since the Riedles’ case, Anderson has represented what he says has been
thousands of victims across the country, including creditors in several church
bankruptcies. He has never, he says, agreed to a confidentiality clause.
Anderson heads an 18-member firm in an ornately appointed historic building
in downtown St. Paul, and has opened offices in Milwaukee, Los Angeles and
London, where new cases are just beginning to be filed.
Wiry and fit, he’s known for his long days and 4 a.m. e-mails, and he’s
frequently on the road for court appearances or news conferences.
A measure of his prominence, and political contributions, can be found in an
out-of-the-way corridor of his two-story offices. There, framed photographs of
Anderson and his family with presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama share
space with legal accolades and a note from then-California Gov. Gray Davis
thanking Anderson for his work in helping pass legislation that made it easier
for sex abuse victims to bring their cases in court.
Among Anderson’s most high-profile clients is Raul Gonzalez, the son of the
late Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who alleges
his father sexually abused him, abetted by his order. But he’s also known for
taking cases other lawyers won’t, because they’re too expensive to pursue or
unlikely to succeed.
“He has spent a great deal of money representing clients whose cases never
got into the system,” said Berry, who estimates more than a third of Anderson’s
cases have been lost to lapsed statutes of limitations.
Anderson won’t discuss compensation, except to say that contingencies range
from 25% to 40% of judgments. He claims not to know how many cases he has
pending or how much he’s earned for victims over the years, though it’s been
estimated by some as high as $60 million.
His single largest verdict was $30 million, in the 1998 case of Father Oliver
O’Grady, the California priest whose crimes were detailed in the 2006 Academy
Award-nominated documentary “Deliver us From Evil.” The judgment was later
reduced to about $7 million.
Sex abuse victims are notoriously mercurial and difficult to work with, and
Anderson’s longevity speaks to his commitment, said David Clohessy, executive
director of the Chicago-based advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused
By Priests, which works closely with Anderson.
“If it was about the money, he could have retired 20 years ago,” Clohessy
said. “Jeff genuinely cares about children, about injustice and about exposing
‘Sees the big picture’
Lawyers who work with him, on both sides of the bar, describe Anderson as
tenacious; a visionary; an adroit legal mind who, while bombastic in news
conferences, is deferential in court.
“The genius of Jeff is that he sees the big picture, he sees what needs to be
done and brings the team together to get it done,” said Marci Hamilton, a First
Amendment scholar at Cardozo Law School in New York, who’s worked with Anderson
in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
His persistence has been evident in Wisconsin, where the courts first blocked
church cases in 1995 on First Amendment grounds, then opened the door in 2007
for victims who could show they were defrauded.
“He just kept coming, to the side door, the back door, then down the chimney
until finally he was able to get a lot of those cases into the courts that might
otherwise not have been brought,” said Berry.
Some adversaries question his tactics: the frequent press releases and news
conferences, the labeling of priests as “pedophiles” before investigations are
“He’s never met a mic he didn’t like,” said Lena, who stressed he was talking
only about Vatican cases.
“Jeff has done important work to bring this problem to the attention of the
public, but he at times takes exaggerated and outrageous positions,” he
Critics have long questioned Anderson’s financial relationship with SNAP,
which collaborates with Anderson – and other attorneys, it points out – on the
release of documents and media events. Neither Anderson nor SNAP would say how
much he gives.
Anderson rejects the criticism, saying he donates to many child-protection
groups and charities, and considers SNAP “one of the most outspoken and powerful
voices for survivors.”
He denies any anti-Catholic sentiment – he’s pursued cases against many
denominations, he says. But litigation, Anderson insists, has been the only way
to get the church to divulge its secrets and begin to reform itself.
“All I want them to do is clean it up. This isn’t about their theology. It
isn’t about any agenda that was ever anti-Catholic,” he said. “It’s all about
their failures to protect the kids, and their decisions to protect themselves at
the great peril of the kids.”