Feature

Collaring the Clergy


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Jeffrey Anderson. Photo by David Ellis

He seems as much air traffic controller as lawyer and control is very much his thing. Sometimes over the speakerphone, sometimes on the handset to preserve client privilege, Anderson eases from one persona to another.

For journalists, there is clever repartee along with bits of information and encouraging compliments.

For a victim of sexual abuse who is embarrassed and fearful, Anderson blends soft-spoken succor with firm coaching on the need for resolve.

Juggling work with lawyers in several other states, he mixes savvy with nuts-and-bolts knowledge from 23 years in a litigation niche.

Sometimes he is impatient. Sometimes he barks orders. He is ever decisive.

“I’ll be there Wednesday for a press conference to have Mark and Dwayne go public with this,” he tells local counsel in Chicago on a Monday afternoon.

Anderson is furious, cursing. An accused priest has countersued their clients for defamation, and Anderson says Cardinal Francis George won’t heed his demand to make it go away.

“I want a lawsuit filed Wednesday, and I want to name Cardinal George personally for his failure to protect these victims.”

The lawsuit and the news conference will come to pass.

A few minutes later, there is his “I love you” over the phone after a favor from Mary Alexander, a San Francisco lawyer. She is a former president of the recently renamed American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ group. She also is involved in some clergy sexual abuse cases.

Anderson calls her seeking help in a hurry. He has 40 minutes till deadline for filing a motion with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco. The suit is against the Vatican.

He e-mails Alexander a copy of the motion; she gets it done.

“He’s frenetic, and he’s in complete control of it all,” says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City who works on clergy sexual abuse cases for Anderson.

Beginning an Era

In the mid-1980s, Anderson was one of the first lawyers to bring suits claiming sexual abuse by clergy. He soon would add educators and others as defendants. His name got around quickly, and he is said to be the first to take cases from across the United States.

With hundreds of current clients, and even more over the years in what now is his only practice area, Anderson is master of his universe. It is expanding rapidly–and in more ways than sheer numbers:

• In September, Anderson went international with his cause, filing suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico. The suit alleges Rivera colluded with Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese to allow a priest who sexually abused boys to transfer from Los Angeles to Mexico City, thus serving up more victims. Anderson has previously sued Mahony and named him in this action. Mendez v. Mahony, No. BC 358718.

• Last June, Anderson was the first lawyer to push a lawsuit against the Vatican over the first hurdle in claiming a high-reaching conspiracy to cover up abuses by priests. A federal judge in Portland, Ore., ruled the tort exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 applies to the Holy See, allowing the case to proceed. Anderson says he spent $50,000 to translate the complaint into Latin and have it served. The decision is on appeal to the 9th Circuit. Doe v. Holy See, 434 F. Supp. 2d 925.

• In another first, Anderson filed suit in Wisconsin state court last August alleging conspiracy and naming all 195 Catholic bishops in the country as defendants. The suit seeks no monetary damages; Anderson wants the bishops to release the names of roughly 5,000 priests who are proven, admitted or credibly accused sexual abusers. O’Connell v. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, No. 06-CV-581 (St. Croix County Cir. Ct.).

• Anderson recently traveled to Peru, where he is investigating the possibility that a priest accused of sexual abuse in the United States (that suit is pending in Washington, D.C.) was transferred there.

“What Jeff did in Mexico was just the can opener to the rest of the world,” says Hamilton, the law professor who works with him. “The issue now isn’t just an exchange of abusive priests between parishes and dioceses in the U.S. Is this on a more global basis?”

In the mid-1980s, investigative news stories in Louisiana about a priest who sexually abused dozens of altar boys brought national attention to the problem for the first time. Almost contemporaneously, Anderson’s lawsuits in Minnesota magnified the national picture. Then, in the early ’90s, a Massachusetts priest was convicted of molesting 28 children. The Roman Catholic Church settled with 68 of his victims for $5 million.

After each flare-up, the issue quieted down. Then in 2002, the Boston Globe ran a monthlong series of articles on clergy sexual abuse. It won a Pulitzer Prize and triggered an avalanche of lawsuits in Massachusetts and around the country. In 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston paid $85 million to settle claims by more than 500 people who said they were sexually abused by priests.

In all, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid out more than $1 billion since 1950 in settlements, jury awards, legal fees, therapy for victims and support for offenders, as well as other costs, according to statistical reports published on the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org). Most of that has been since 2002. Many victims were children at the time and didn’t come forward till much later in life. Largely through work by Anderson and by Larry Drivon, a prominent Stockton, Calif., lawyer who has worked with him, a new California law allowed sexual abuse lawsuits that would have been time-barred to be filed in 2003.

“It came at the height of the frenzy, when media coverage was most intense,” says James Sweeney, a Sacramento lawyer who represents the California Catholic Conference (of bishops and their dioceses) and also is general counsel for the Diocese of Sacramento. More than 1,000 alleged victims rushed through that window. More than 850 of the claims are in lawsuits clustered in three regional groups. California dioceses have paid out about $160 million in settlements so far, and they average more than $1 million per person.

That includes the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ settlement in December with 45 claimants for $60 million. Those matters were not covered by insurance. More than 500 cases remain for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, and some were expected to go to trial this year to test the waters.

Anderson is involved in most of the California cases. But in the biggest regional groupings, known as Clergy I and Clergy II in Southern California, his privilege to work there pro hac vice was challenged successfully. The court ruled hundreds of cases are too many for temporary admission to practice in the state.

The same challenge failed in Clergy III, which includes several Northern California dioceses. There, Anderson helped try three cases to verdict before the bulk settled.

He is still involved in Clergy I and Clergy II, but he cannot take depositions or examine witnesses in court.

Rolling In Cases (Not Cash)

On the heels of the Globe’s revelations, Anderson’s phone rang continuously. Clients, usually referred by lawyers who knew of him, came from all over.

At the time, his practice was costing a lot more money than it was bringing in. His work had gotten tougher after a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in 1996 that narrowly interpreted a law giving plaintiffs six years to file suit after discovering they were injured by sexual abuse. Anderson had lobbied for the expanded statute of limitations, which passed in its original form in 1989. Blackowiak v. Kemp, 546 N.W.2d 1.

By 2002, his 12-lawyer firm, Reinhardt & Anderson, had nearly tapped out its credit lines. Debt ran into the millions of dollars. While some of the other lawyers worked cases with Anderson, the firm’s specialty was antitrust and class actions.

“I pledged all my personal assets, and the others were very much opposed to the amount of money I was spending, and we were in significant financial distress,” Anderson explains. “They said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this,’ and we split in an acrimonious divorce.”

Anderson’s former partner of 23 years, Mark Reinhardt, who as an adjunct professor taught him at the night law school, differs on some particulars.

“He announced to us at a partners’ meeting that he was sitting on a gold mine, and he needed to mine it,” Reinhardt says. “We decided to tap what little was left in a line of credit and do it. But we told him we needed to hold expenses down, and he couldn’t be flying all over the country holding press conferences all the time.”

A few months later, Reinhardt recalls, “he said he wanted a divorce from the partnership. He took the gold mine with him.”

The split was in March 2003. Mandatory arbitration over assets continues, with money occasionally moving in either direction as awards and settlements come in on matters that were in the pipeline. But thus far, the greater amount likely has flowed from Anderson to his former partners.

“I assume he’s made more than ever before in his life,” says Reinhardt, who declines to provide financial details.

Still, Anderson says, “I’m the losingest lawyer you’ve ever interviewed. I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won, and people only read about the stunning victories.”

Building His Forces

Anderson will sue when winning is more than unlikely; he’ll sue when there are no pockets at all. Just to make the point, he says, or to expose a perp–that word flips often from his lips.

Critics believe Anderson builds portfolios of lost cases simply to help gain strategic advantage for the longer haul–in courts and legislatures, as well as public opinion. Since most known childhood sexual abuse victims come forward years after the incidents, he and others point to their lack of recourse when arguing for legislative change that will lead to more, and more viable, lawsuits.

Using the California success as a template, Anderson and others have been trying to crack state statutory impediments elsewhere. He files suit after suit all the while. Efforts to open statutes of limitations are under way in more than a dozen other states, with no success thus far.

“He ends up with a group of unsuccessful cases, and he can go to a legislature and say, ‘They’re barred, and you need to do something,’ ” says Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. “That’s always been part of his approach.”

One such effort failed last year in Colorado, thanks in part to active opposition led by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver. In an article published in May 2006 in First Things, an interreligious, nonpartisan journal, Chaput criticized the unfairness of the legislative proposal.

Chaput mentioned only one lawyer by name: “The California bill was developed with the direct assistance of attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has very profitably sued Catholic dioceses and institutions across the country for years. A proposed Colorado version of the legislation is modeled directly on California’s.”

“I keep a low profile now on the legislative side,” says Anderson, who hopes political change in Minnesota in November’s elections might bring back another version of the delayed discovery statute. “They always try to make me the issue.”

Dozens of lawyers around the country specialize in representing plaintiffs against various religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church. But Anderson, more than any of them, bedevils the clergy.

“He’s wired different than the rest of us,” says Drivon, the Stockton, Calif., lawyer. Drivon is a former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, an affiliate of AAJ. He has worked with Anderson on a number of clergy sexual abuse cases, including a $30 million jury award in 1998 that hit Cardinal Mahony for his prior actions as a bishop in transferring an abusive priest. (The case eventually settled for $7.5 million.) Doe v. Catholic Bishop, Diocese of Stockton, Nos. 287468 and 275237 (Super. Ct. San Joaquin County).

Even the decor of Anderson’s office indicates a differently wired view of the world. His double-corner office is chock-full with oversize, ornate, dark-wood furniture. Anderson’s desktop computer is housed in the gutted frame of a narrow, 19th century parlor organ, which has the look of church furnishings. He even bought a confessional at auction, but he doesn’t expect to move it into his office. That might be too much.

At one window sill, an antique kneeler for praying is now a bookstand. It holds a 4-inch-thick volume listing backgrounds, career moves and whereabouts of priests and their superiors. The Official Catholic Directory 2006 is a much-thumbed investigative tool for Anderson and his colleagues.

“I do like religious art and iconography, though not stuff that reveres the church,” Anderson says.

Finding His Calling

Anderson’s background and early law practice did not portend his achievements in money, impact, reputation and notoriety. In the late 1960s, he was a self-described student radical. He was soon derailed from normal educational and career paths because of a girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy. They married at age 19.

He worked various jobs, mostly manual labor, and eventually squeaked through night school at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He flunked out at one point, largely, as he tells it, because he felt he should not have to attend classes. The earlier-than-expected birth of a second child kept him from last-minute cramming for an exam, which dealt the final blow.

“Then, the defiant part of me said if I was going to leave law school, it would be my choice,” says Anderson. So he worked his way back in.

Clinical work brought an epiphany.

Anderson’s first client as a supervised law student in court was a black man charged with a crime for entering an open church in an upper-class neighborhood to use the restroom. The man was acquitted. Anderson was empowered.

After law school, he opened what he calls a poverty law practice supplemented with part-time work as a public defender. If a client could afford only $50, then “I’d reach across the desk and take the 50 bucks and get to work,” Anderson says.

He is believed to have made tens of millions of dollars in recent years.

In July 1984, his future walked through the door in the form of a couple with a story about their son. They’d learned he had been abused by a priest. (Anderson would not learn of it till 1990, but his own daughter was sexually abused in 1980, at age 8, by a former clergyman counseling her during Anderson’s divorce from his first wife.) When the couple told their bishop about the abuse, he did not seem alarmed and was noncommittal, they told Anderson. Unexpectedly, the couple received a check for $1,600 from the bishop two days later to cover some of their son’s therapy costs, Anderson recalls.

He told them to cash the check and hire him to look into the matter. But he didn’t quite know how to go about it.

“Nobody had sued the church before on something like this, at least that I could find,” Anderson says. He tried a tool available in only a handful or fewer states: Minnesota permits one party to serve a lawsuit on another without having to file it first in court. The so-called hip-pocket filing allows for some initial discovery. The goal is to increase the likelihood of settlement without going to court.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis probably was as new to the legalities as Anderson. Expecting the matter to settle, as Anderson explains it, the church willingly turned over damning documents after he threatened to file in court. Those documents would prove to be of a kind that he has, in subsequent cases in Minnesota and elsewhere, had to go to war over–sometimes to no avail.

In this case, dies would be cast for Anderson’s future: refusing settlements that include confidentiality agreements, and crafting press releases as quickly and carefully as the complaints.

The church offered to settle for seven figures in return for confidentiality. Anderson, the poverty lawyer who took on civil rights cases at the time, says he could not sleep that night.

The next morning he told his client the offer was there to take. But Anderson emphasized that he could not live with the confidentiality agreement, and that eventually his client probably would not be able to either.

“I told him the guy would still be able to go out and do it with other kids and it would be ‘on my conscience and yours,’ ” Anderson recalls.

“He told me to do what I had to do, but quickly, before he changed his mind. I went straight to the courthouse and filed the suit.” Riedle v. Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, No. 482126 (2d Jud. Dist. Ramsey County 1984). Then he called newspapers and television stations. (Now he calls ahead of time.) He got his first taste of national headlines.

Eventually the church settled for about $1.3 million and no confidentiality.

Directing the Tide

Anderson was a quick study on the news media’s importance, not just for exposing sexual abuse by authority figures but for changing perceptions and attitudes–the raw materials of public opinion. The joke among some colleagues in his old firm of Reinhardt & Anderson was that when they needed his attention, they probably should phone him and claim to be a reporter.

After filing the lawsuit in Los Angeles against the Mexican cardinal last September, Anderson and an entourage, including his own camera crew, headed for Mexico City to announce it in a news conference. As the heavily attended media event in a hotel lobby was winding down, more than half a dozen Mexican immigration agents arrived and tried to spirit him away. Anderson believes it was at the instigation of church officials. (The video, hubbub included, is on his Web site at andersonadvocates.com.)

Someone with Anderson called the U.S. Embassy and then police, who arrived quickly and confronted the immigration agents. Police then escorted Anderson and his group to the airport, saying they had spared him possible harm, Anderson recounts. The Mexican government banned him from the country for five years for violating his tourist status by conducting a news conference.

Accompanying Anderson on this first foreign venture was one of his three associates, Michael Finnegan. The 29-year-old Finnegan is as reserved as Anderson is garrulous. His father, a St. Paul public defender, is a longtime friend of Anderson’s. At 6-foot-5, Finnegan looms nearly as much over 6 feet as Anderson lurks under it.

“I like to think I’m 5’5,” quips Anderson, who says that Finnegan’s height drew stares recently when they were in Peru. More likely it was because, seen together, they exaggerate each other’s stature.

At 59, Anderson is fit and always tanned. He resembles the martial-arts competitor turned movie star Chuck Norris, including the confident affect, compact muscularity and V-shaped torso. He pops 18 vitamin supplements daily, along with protein powder mixes, and self-injects human growth hormone six days a week for vigor and longevity. “Once we were meeting as a group to go to dinner, and he started looking at his watch when someone was late,” says a Los Angeles reporter who has covered a number of Anderson’s California news conferences. “He wanted to go work out. We wanted a drink.”

Until he turned 50, Anderson would look at his watch toward the end of the day because it was time for a drink.

“On my 50th birthday, I had a nice dinner and then drank till I blacked out,” Anderson says. “Some nights I would drink myself to blackout.” The life-changing significance that can come with a milestone such as a 50th birthday stopped him cold.

“I went into rehab, and I’ve been in recovery ever since,” Anderson says. “I spent so much energy trying to be sure I didn’t miss court dates or get DUIs. Now I use that energy in a different way.”

Anderson and Finnegan make a perfect match. Anderson has been doing this for so long, he can “hum the tune” of any aspect of sexual abuse litigation in any jurisdiction. Finnegan, who left St. Paul long enough to finish Yale University and play two years of professional baseball before returning home for law school, “writes the lyrics.”

Anderson points to two examples. He tasked Finnegan with finding a way to get a case against the Vatican past the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. And he asked him to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to grant review to one of his many failed cases–after about 14 years of trying.

Finnegan nailed both.

Wisconsin is one of two states (the other is Missouri) in which courts have shielded religious organizations from such lawsuits. They have given First Amendment free-exercise-clause protections to internal decision-making in dealing with clergy accused of sexual abuse.

Others, including a California court, have ruled differently. Last year, in a challenge to the law that opened the statute of limitations, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the transfer of priests accused of sexual abuse to new locations is an employment matter having nothing to do with religious practice. Melanie H. v. Sisters of Precious Blood, Civ. No. 04-1596-WQH-(WMc).

Spurring Progress

Litigation across the country has unquestionably led to changes in the law, policy and attitudes. Four grand juries, most notably one in Philadelphia, have investigated clergy sexual abuse and issued blistering reports, along with recommendations for legislation. “From the church’s perspective, we would of course love to see all this [litigation] over with, and in some respects probably wish it had never happened,” says Michael Hennigan, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the archdiocese there. “But on a broader scale, greater good is probably coming of it. Things are discussed now that should have been discussed before, not just in the church but in society as a whole.

“The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is much better for it, though that might be said more convincingly when it’s all over.”

On the bigger scale, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has pursued causes and remedies exhaustively since 2002, in the wake of the Boston Globe reports. That includes adopting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which requires sexual abuse allegations against priests be reported to state authorities. The conference conducts detailed annual audits of compliance with the charter, and it posts the audits and a huge amount of related information on its Web site. The organization has no legal control over the bishops, however, and a couple of dioceses refuse to participate in the audits.

“Clergy sexual abuse litigation is probably the most powerful example today of how civil lawsuits can enhance policy-making,” says Timothy Lytton, a professor at the Albany Law School in New York. “These lawsuits put the issues on the agendas of church officials, law enforcement and state legislatures. It was no longer just about bad apples.” The result, he says, belies tort reform arguments claiming litigation is an ineffective waste of resources for seeking social change, that it usually causes more harm than good, and that courts are not good at making social policy.

Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has debated Lytton on this subject in published articles.

“At some point you can say, sure, having this kind of attention is helpful,” says Chopko. “But at this point, every lawsuit is looking for seven- and eight-figure recoveries. Just because you have a claim doesn’t mean we write a check. We have an obligation to donors, at a minimum, to investigate claims and ask sometimes hard or embarrassing questions–as hard to ask as answer.”

On the other side, Anderson clearly relishes asking hard and embarrassing questions, particularly of archbishops and bishops in depositions and on the witness stand. They often seem shocked that someone would dare to challenge them, he says. “They’re used to people kissing their rings,” he adds. “I won’t do that.”


Terry Carter is a senior writer for the ABA Journal.


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