ST. PAUL (AP) –Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul lawyer who’s made a career of suing the Roman Catholic church over sexual abuse by priests, likes to draw a link between that crusade and his youthful devotion to the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Over the last 25 years, the legal movement Anderson helped launch has produced the kind of tangible results that leaders of other social movements might envy: Catholic diocese have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, some going bankrupt in the process. Hundreds of priests have left the church, some ending up in jail. And cultural awareness of sexual abuse by ministers skyrocketed, prompting more victims to come forward.
“This movement has had a tremendous impact on ordinary Catholic life — the way people see the priesthood and view the Catholic hierarchy,” said Matt Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
For Anderson, that’s not enough. After an explosion of abuse allegations starting in about 2002, the rate of new cases has declined in the last few years. That’s prompted Anderson and his allies to attempt new and different legal maneuvers aimed at keeping church leaders in the courtroom — everything from suing bishops for fraud, to taking aim at statutes of limitations that limit access to lawsuits, to suing the Vatican itself.
The flamboyant Anderson, who has always had a flair for the public relations potential of his work, said the ultimate goal is no less than a fundamental change in the centuries-old leadership structure of the Catholic Church, one that would make everyone from cardinals to parish priests more accountable to their congregations. Critics say his actual goal is much less sweeping.
“I think they’ll continue to pursue reformation as long as it’s economically viable,” said Andrew Eisenzimmer, general counsel to the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese and a frequent sparring partner to Anderson.
In 1983, Anderson filed one of the first sexual abuse lawsuits against the U.S. Roman Catholic Church — pulling a long-simmering problem into the public light. Since then he’s filed thousands of lawsuits, and his St. Paul law firm continues to juggle dozens of cases. He’ll be back in a St. Paul courtroom in a few weeks with a lawsuit charging, among other allegations, that leaders of the St. Paul-Minneapolis and Winona dioceses are guilty of fraud for moving an accused priest from parish to parish despite knowing of abuse allegations against him.
“We haven’t won damages on a fraud case, yet,” Anderson said. “But we’re trying it in, I think, 60 cases right now.”
Anderson said it’s hard to estimate how many clients he represents, but said currently it’s between 100 to 200 in 20 different U.S. states. He claims to have lost track of how many millions in damages he’s won from the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions over the years, although in 2002, he estimated it was $60 million.
But more than two decades since he started, the number of new abuse claims has slowed noticeably — 803 new claims in 2008, compared to 1,092 in 2002, according to an annual church study.
Church leaders say that’s because of their response to the scandals — everything from background checks on new priests to victim assistance coordinators in dioceses to massive settlements paid to abuse victims. American dioceses have paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops.
Anderson “refuses to acknowledge the things that the church has done,” Eisenzimmer said.
Chief among the goals of church critics is the release the names of every last priest that a 2004 church-backed study said were “credibly accused” of abuse since 1950.
“We’re fighting that battle in 10 or 12 states now,” Anderson said — that is, asking judges to force dioceses to release names of credibly accused priests, which could bring forward new victims and more lawsuits.
However, that flood of new victims could run into the old wall that’s stymied previous plaintiffs. Statutes of limitations in most states prohibit criminal charges or civil lawsuits alleging abuse if it happened too long ago (the time limits are different from state to state).
Both California and Delaware in recent years temporarily lifted their statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits. A similar effort is advancing in the New York legislature.
Anderson helped draft the California repeal, and said while he doesn’t fund lobbying efforts directly, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocacy groups that push for the law changes.
Representing abuse victims has made Anderson a wealthy man. He earns the standard 30 percent-to-40 percent fee of most personal injury lawyers.
Beyond the fights on multiple fronts, Anderson continues to press a long-shot lawsuit against the Vatican itself. His client is a man who claims to have been molested by a religious-order priest at a Catholic school in Oregon in the 1960s, and in early March a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled he can pursue the lawsuit against the Vatican because alleged abuse took place while the priest served in a religious capacity.
Legal experts are skeptical, pointing out that the Vatican has traditionally been protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which shields foreign sovereign nations from lawsuits in U.S. courts.
“That’s going to be extremely difficult to get past,” said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh and a former lawyer for the church.
“But we already made it further than anyone ever has,” Anderson counters.
As he waits for an expected appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he’s preparing a list of Vatican leaders he’d like to depose. At the top is Cardinal William Levada, the American who now leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the post previously held by Pope Benedict.
Who else among the Vatican hierarchy would Anderson like to depose? “All of them,” he said. What about the pope? “You better believe it.”