In 1983, Jeff Anderson was just another lawyer working in St Paul, Minnesota. Then, by chance, the 35-year-old’s career—and life—changed forever when a man walked into his office saying he had been abused by a priest.
Soon after taking on the case, Anderson realized the problem was much greater than he had first imagined. It wasn’t just a pedophile priest who was culpable, but also senior bishops who had conspired to cover up the abuse. He promptly sued the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St Paul.
The bishops responded with $1m to settle the matter out of court, but Anderson’s client refused. And so began a landmark case that drew the attention of the US media to clerical abuse for the first time. He eventually won the case and the floodgates opened.
“Hundreds of survivors of clerical abuse who had been afraid to come forward finally spoke up,” he says, speaking to Weekend Review from his office in St Paul. “Many thought they had been the only ones who had suffered abuse at the hands of priests, and that case — and subsequent cases — showed that it was much more common than they had thought.”
Since that first triumph, Anderson has been the Catholic Church’s bête noir. His growing practice focuses entirely on getting justice — and compensation –for the abused. He has pursued some of the most high-profile abusers in the US, including several Irish priests based there.
He doesn’t like to talk about the money paid out in compensation but suggested back in 2002 that his victories had totalled $60m. That figure has likely swelled significantly in the intervening years.
He has filed more than 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic Church in the US and thousands more against individuals and organizations, including those belonging to other Christian denominations. Yet, he believes “the vow of chastity” priests are obliged to take, coupled with “the suppression of sexuality”, makes Catholic clergy more likely to abuse.
Anderson has even tried to sue the Vatican, believing it to be ultimately responsible. “All roads lead to Rome,” he says. “The hierarchy of the Church has to take responsibility for refusing to abide by civil law. Priests are told to accept Canon Law above the law of their respective countries. Remember Canon Law has been around for 2,000 years, and it’s fundamental to the ethos of the Church.”
Anderson says the recently unearthed letter (on RTE’s Would You Believe?) sent by the Vatican to Irish bishops, seemingly urging them to protect paedophile priests, proves his theory that the problem begins at the top and permeates down. “It’s yet further evidence that Canon Law assists in covering up abuse. If we are really going to address the problems of clerical sexual abuse, we have to go directly to the Vatican. It’s as simple as that.”
Only last month Anderson, in conjunction with the London-based US lawyer Ann Olivarius, set up a practice in the UK and this week his associates, headed by Georgina Calvert-Lee, attempted to forge relationships with law firms here.
“Since opening the London office we have been inundated with queries from Ireland, which is probably 10 years ahead of the UK when it comes to the emotional aspects of dealing with clerical abuse,” Calvert-Lee says. During their Irish reconnaissance, Anderson’s delegation met with representatives of victims’ groups, including Colm O’Gorman of One in Four.
Ireland’s grim record in exporting paedophile priests is something Anderson became aware of early on in his career. “Many of the priests who have abused survivors I have helped in the United States are from Ireland and were trained in dioceses there.”
Last month, Anderson filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of an alleged American victim of an octogenarian Irish priest, who is accused of molesting the then eight-year-old boy in Minnesota, almost 30 years ago.
The suit was filed in a court in Minneapolis, and named as co-defendants an Irish diocese, the Diocese of New Ulm in Minnesota and the Servants of the Paraclete, an international Catholic congregation which aims to treat paedophile priests.
“This priest had a history of abuse, but the Church refused to defrock him. Instead, he was moved from parish to parish, and from country to country. The level of the abuse he perpetrated over decades is especially shocking. And in recent weeks, other survivors of this priest have come forward to us, both here in the US and in Ireland.”
Anderson, a 63-year-old father of six, was raised in the Lutheran faith and is anxious to point out that he “has nothing against” the Catholic Church. “My enemies say that I have a desire to bring down the Church, but that is not the case at all. It is the hierarchy of the Church and their response to the abuse of children that I fight against. I have absolutely no problem with the theological view. In fact, two of my children from my first marriage were brought up in the Catholic faith.”
He says he has a strong sense of spirituality which was fostered during a recovery programme to help his alcoholism. “And I derive great strength from the courage of survivors of clerical abuse. They are extraordinary people whose willingness to take on an enormous, powerful institution is incredibly inspirational.”
As a high-profile, media-friendly lawyer, Anderson says he has long ruffled feathers. “They say I’m doing this for the money, for the fame” — for the record, he operates a no-win, no- fee policy and it is reported that he takes between 25 and 40pc of settlement winnings — “they throw all kinds of accusations at me. I never set out to be an attorney who would specialise in this area — very few people imagined there was such an endemic problem of clerical abuse within the Catholic Church back then — but now I feel it’s my calling to represent people who have endured sexual abuse.”
Although some might question his desire to bring the Vatican to book, believing it to be an exercise in futility, Anderson refuses to back down. “Nobody had sued a diocese before we did it in 1983/84 and we were successful. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) claims to have sovereign immunity because he is a head of state and not just head of the Catholic Church. But I believe he is a potential legal witness.”
Anderson contends that Benedict, in his former capacity as leader the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, refused to defrock the notorious Wisconsin abuser Fr Laurence Murphy when the case came before him in the mid-1990s. Murphy is alleged to have abused more than 200 boys in his care between 1950 and 1975.
The Vatican has defended that decision, saying the case reached Rome only in 1996, two years before Murphy died. Church officials also say Murphy had repented in a letter to Ratzinger, and that the case’s statute of limitations had run out. They decry criticism over the case as an effort to smear the Pope.
If you have been a victim of clerical abuse, you can consult Anderson Olivarius at www.aoadvocates.com