Lawyer vs. Vatican

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson has filed hundreds of lawsuits against Catholic church officials on behalf of sexual-abuse survivors. His critics label him a zealot, and some claim he’s only in it for the money. But a recent Supreme Court decision has Anderson one step closer to his ultimate end: a chance to hold Rome—and the pope—directly accountable for covering up the abuse.

OUTSIDE THE GIANT semi-circular window behind Jeff Anderson’s desk, a crab-apple tree is just starting to bud on this April morning, its leaves not yet big enough to break up the light streaming into his downtown St. Paul office. The attorney, 62, sits at his desk, silent and ramrod straight, poised over a file of old letters. His eyes are red and wet.

The letters Anderson is reading were written in 1995 by a man known publicly only as John Doe 16. Addressed to the priest who molested Doe as a child and to the priest’s superiors, the letters make for raw, gritty reading. In 1963,

Father Lawrence Murphy became the headmaster of a Milwaukee Catholic boarding school for the deaf, where he sexually abused as many as 200 boys. Many had been sent to the school because there was no one in their life who knew sign language. But Murphy did, and often he served as the boys’ only conduit to the outside world.

“You were all I had,” Doe wrote in one letter to Murphy. “No one at home signed. I could not communicate with them. I turned to you and what did you do? You molested me, that’s what. You took advantage of a lost little boy who had no one else.”

In 1974, a number of students who had been abused by Murphy threatened to make their stories public. Instead of defrocking the priest or turning him over to law enforcement, Milwaukee church officials quietly moved him to Superior, Wisconsin, where he went on to abuse again. In 1996, after several of Murphy’s victims filed new suits, the Archbishop of Milwaukee wrote to the Vatican several times, asking for guidance. Murphy, who admitted to abusing 34 boys, including Doe, also wrote, saying he was in poor health and asking for lenience. In 1998, Rome intervened, to protect the priest, who died a few months later.

Alongside the letters on Anderson’s desk is a copy of a manila envelope given to him by Doe. It’s addressed to a Vatican functionary, and a U.S. Postal Service return receipt with “Cita del Vaticano” stamped on one side proves that the missive was received. But Doe never got a reply.

Anderson has filed literally thousands of lawsuits on behalf of sexual-abuse survivors, but when he got John Doe 16’s correspondence earlier this year, he immediately recognized its importance. The letters told one story—one about a pedophile given power over children—but the return receipt told another, this one about the lengths to which Rome would go to cover up serious crimes. The enormity of the suit Anderson is filing this morning is hard to fathom: He is suing the Vatican for covering up the abuse. The official who intervened in Murphy’s case was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
 

IN THE HALLWAY outside Anderson’s office, it’s bedlam. The phones haven’t stopped ringing since the day before, when he sent out a press release promising to reveal a landmark suit at an early afternoon news conference. His staff is fielding hundreds of calls from reporters around the world, all jockeying for an exclusive on the day’s news, hoping to break the story.

Today’s story will build on a bombshell that Anderson dropped a few weeks earlier, in March, when he turned over a damning paper trail uncovered in another lawsuit to the New York Times. Those documents revealed that Ratzinger knew about Father Murphy, but intervened to protect him. The Times’ front-page story ignited a media maelstrom that has yet to abate. A satellite truck has been parked more or less continually on the street outside Anderson’s office ever since, broadcasting frequent press conferences about new developments around the globe.

Anderson closes John Doe 16’s file and slides it to the side of his desk. A few minutes later, he gets the call he’s been waiting for: The Milwaukee lawyer with whom he’s been working is on the line to say the suit against the Vatican has been filed. It’s official. It’s 10:10 a.m.

The door to Anderson’s office flies open and people begin rushing in and out of the room. The attorney’s first need is some basic intelligence on the judge to whom the case has been assigned. His staff gathers tidbits from calls and the Internet: The judge was a Bush appointee—potentially bad; but he is also on the board of a child-abuse prevention group—excellent.

At 10:20 a.m., Anderson asks his IT person to post the complaint to the firm’s website alongside the documents turned up in his earlier suits involving Murphy. He’ll put the really juicy new stuff, the correspondence between the plaintiff in this lawsuit and the Vatican, up at noon.

Soon thereafter, church officials fire back, issuing a statement to the press calling the lawsuit a propaganda stunt. “While legitimate lawsuits have been filed by abuse victims, this is not one of them,” it says. “The lawsuit represents an attempt to use tragic events as a platform for a broader attack.”

To hear Catholic leaders tell it, Anderson is a grandiose crusader. His true aim is to attract a steady stream of potential plaintiffs so he can enrich himself while destroying the Holy See.

The church is right: Jeff Anderson has filed thousands of cases, and won a number of them with large settlements attached. But in the process, he’s also become convinced that a culture of silent complicity has been encouraged by Rome, and that the church hierarchy must be brought to heel. Lawsuits have served Anderson well in his effort to engage the Vatican, but the truth is that, for years, the impact of bad press has often been the biggest arrow in his quiver.
 

 

THE FIRST OF ANDERSON’S JOHN DOES was a 22-year-old Twin Cities man named Greg Riedle, who, in 1984, told his parents that the parish priest had been molesting him for nine years. Good Catholics, his mother and father appealed to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to do something. They were shocked when the bishop they talked to had no response.

A couple of days later, a check for $1,600 arrived in the mail. Suspicious, the couple asked a neighbor who was an attorney what they should do. He sent them to Anderson, who had made a name for himself tackling big, tough civil-liberties cases.

After verifying that the priest, Tom Adamson, was still working in his parish, Anderson called the police. They told him too much time had elapsed for them to do anything. He called the archdiocese and complained that Adamson was still working in his parish. “They said nothing,” Anderson recalls, “so I was left with the idea of suing.”

In Minnesota, it’s possible to initiate a lawsuit by serving it on the party you are suing rather than by filing it in a court of law, where it instantly becomes a matter of public record. Anderson had handled enough high-profile cases to know the value of the mere threat of publicity, so he drafted a complaint on Riedle’s behalf and had it served, but did not formally file it.

Suddenly, he had the archdiocese’s full attention. Every time it wavered, he threatened to file the suit. “They said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want him out.’ They said, ‘He’s out,’ ” Anderson recalls. “Then I said I wanted to know why they had left him in place. They said nothing. I said I wanted to depose Archbishop John Roach. He said the priest had been sent from Winona. He said he was a good priest. Roach said he didn’t really know the priest had a history.”

But Roach also said the bishop sent Adamson to him on Christmas Eve of 1974. Anderson didn’t know that the sudden transfer was typical of the church’s response to reports of abuse, but he sensed it was significant. “It really stunk,” he says. “It was evident they were lying, but it wasn’t evident that I was going to catch them.”

At least not until he got an anonymous call suggesting he tell the whole story to someone he identifies only as J. K. Anderson didn’t know why, but he drove four hours to talk to J. K. When he got to the part where the bishop and archbishop had said they didn’t know of any allegations against Adamson, J. K. stopped him. They most certainly did know. Adamson was moved after J. K.’s family threatened to tell the police that the priest had abused his brother.

Anderson told the diocese what he’d learned. “They called shortly thereafter and offered $1 million,” Anderson recalls. “They said, ‘We’ll do the usual confidentiality agreement.’ I said, ‘What’s this usual stuff?’ They said, ‘That’s what we do in these cases.’ ”

Anderson understood the implication immediately: If Riedle took the money, no one would know if the church simply moved Adamson again without taking steps to ensure he wasn’t in a position to abuse someone else. “I did not sleep that night,” Anderson recalls. “I cried and was in this horrified and terrified state.”

When he met with Riedle the next morning, he told his client he couldn’t tell him what to do. “He listened and—God bless him—he said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ I said we needed to turn it down, and he said, ‘Go ahead, but do it quick before I change my mind.’ ”

Anderson filed the suit, and then placed the first of many calls to the news media. The archdiocese eventually settled the case for $1.3 million and no gag order. In the wake of the settlement, dozens more victims of Adamson turned to Anderson. It is estimated that their claims alone cost the church some $6 million.
 

ONE WEDNESDAY MORNING, 26 years later, Anderson places another round of calls to the media. This time, as he unspools the news of the day, it becomes apparent that he has bent the press to his cause in more ways than one.

This news conference, which takes place shortly before the one announcing John Doe 16’s suit, concerns the case of a teenage Florida girl who was molested in 2006. Father Vijaya Bhaskar Godugunuru eventually admitted the abuse, pleaded guilty to associated felony charges, and was sent back to his native India, where he was required to undergo counseling and not be in a position of leadership with minors for at least a year. The bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee assured the victim’s family that the Vatican was well aware of the case.

This past spring, Anderson got word that Vijaya was working in a parish in Tuscany, Italy. Anderson wrote and called Vatican officials, asking about the priest’s status, but heard nothing. So he contacted the Associated Press, which dispatched someone from its Italian bureau to visit the parish where the priest was supposedly posted. The rumor turned out to be true: The priest was indeed working again, without restrictions. His supervising bishop explained to the news service that, his U.S. conviction notwithstanding, church leaders believed Vijaya’s explanation that he was innocent.

The story made headlines all over the world, and Vijaya was forced to leave his post. Church officials said nothing about their next move, but the implication was clear: Anderson’s long experience with the media was making it harder to shuffle offending priests out of sight.
 

 

CRITICS CALL ANDERSON A ZEALOT. This is true, but doesn’t do much to convey the attorney’s tremendous intensity. He’s slight and wiry, with the posture of a Marine. He’s profane, quick to tears, and collects religious antiques so dark and brooding they suggest nothing so much as an Umberto Eco story. He is unfailingly solicitous with his staff, although wholly disinterested in such niceties as lunch.

He was raised a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism during his first marriage, and now describes himself as deeply spiritual. He and his second wife, Julie, own a lavishly appointed B&B in Stillwater. He gave up drinking on his 50th birthday. He has six kids from his two marriages.

News stories about him or his cases invariably speculate about his single-mindedness. In the mid-1990s, he learned that his adult daughter had been molested as a child by a therapist she was seeing in connection with her parents’ divorce. That was devastating, but the force that Anderson calls his “purposeful flame” has as much to do with the social consciousness he acquired as a teenager in the 1960s. He was an anti-war protester, an accidental father, and chronically unhappy. “I felt powerless personally in the streets,” he recalls. “I needed to do more with myself.”

He settled on law school, even though he found it a bore. He nearly flunked out of William Mitchell College of Law because he couldn’t be bothered to attend class. On the verge of being expelled, he got his first case at the college’s clinic—and his first taste of being able to make a difference. He was assigned to defend a vagrant who was arrested after letting himself into an unlocked church to use the bathroom. Anderson won.

Anderson worked for a while as a public defender, but eventually struck out on his own. His cases made headlines right away. In 1977, he handled the suit that forced Minneapolis to allow GLBT Pride celebrations to occur and represented defendants in a case involving the arrest of 100 men in private bathhouses.
 

HERE IS ANOTHER THING Anderson’s detractors say: The headlines and the avenging crusader image drum up lots of business. His “franchise,” as his critics call Anderson’s work, has generated at least $60 million in settlements and judgments over the years and made him a rich man. This, too, is true, but it doesn’t fully explain Anderson’s tenacity.

Since his first high-profile victory, Anderson has gotten literally hundreds of calls a week from survivors looking to hold their abusers accountable. Sometimes he can embarrass the church into a settlement and sometimes a lawsuit actually proceeds to trial. But the basis for most of those claims is personal injury, and more often, the legal clock has run out for the would-be plaintiff.

All states limit the time frame for filing personal-injury lawsuits. Minnesota, which is fairly typical, gives sexual-abuse survivors six years to sue. Often, however, survivors won’t confront their abusers until a decade or more has passed. Molested teens, for example, may suppress the pain until adulthood.

Anderson spent some time lobbying the state legislature to change Minnesota’s statute of limitations to take the special nature of sex-abuse cases into account, but in 1996 the state Supreme Court upheld the six-year time limit. Anderson’s pipeline of plaintiffs slowed and the firm where he was a partner went deeply into debt.

One cluster of untried cases in particular had long frustrated Anderson. Since the late ’90s, he had been filing suits on behalf of students and novitiates at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Among other things, St. John’s, one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in America, was home to a number of clerics who had been accused of abuse and were now living “on restriction” in a special wing of the abbey.

By all accounts, the abbot, the Reverend John Klassen, was conflicted. He was horrified by the abuse and wanted his order to make amends to survivors. But he also saw the offenders as ill. The abbey would never exile a brother who had a medical disease. (A number of monks still live on restriction at the abbey.)

In October 2002, Klassen and Anderson announced an unprecedented agreement. St. John’s would apologize to known victims, pay fair restitution, and not hide behind the statute of limitations. A jointly appointed external review board, including clergy members, abuse survivors, and laity, would oversee the handling of cases both old and new. The board would make decisions, and the abbey was to abide by them. When fresh allegations surfaced, the abbey would notify law enforcement and try to locate as many survivors as possible.

“I need not tell anyone what a painful year it was for me, personally, and for all of my confreres in the monastic community,” Klassen wrote to the St. Cloud Times in 2003. “Emotions ranged from shock and bewilderment to an immense embarrassment for inappropriate behavior for which we must take responsibility…. I am determined to do everything in my power to help survivors of abuse here toward healing and reconciliation.”

For a time, Anderson hoped that the church would adopt the St. John’s solution more widely. A number of archdioceses and religious orders were reportedly considering similar approaches. “I really thought, ‘Okay, this is a nice model to work under,’” says Anderson. “For the first time, a major religious organization was ready to hand information over to the laity.”

Nearly right away, the board got three new complaints. One of the monks was dead; the other two lived at the abbey. One had taught at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Anoka and at St. John’s Preparatory School for several years after allegations about him surfaced. One member of the review board, Pat Marker, received several calls and e-mails indicating that one of the monks, supposedly on restriction, was still in contact with children—allowed to sell food at prep-school events.

The review board was expected to conduct its work in private, though, so Marker agitated for nearly three years before threatening to go public. Klassen finally named the monks in the late 2006, but noted that in all three cases the statute of limitations had run out.

Angry that the abbey’s first instinct was still to close ranks, Marker resigned in protest. “They are going to either under-report or minimize every chance they have,” he told the St. Cloud Times.

In hindsight, the settlement was a mistake, Anderson says. He wishes he’d insisted on greater transparency. As soon as the cases were out of the headlines, the church’s instinct to protect its own took over, he says: “So now we’re back to suing them.”
 

 

EVEN AS THE ST. JOHN’S ARRANGEMENT was playing out, Anderson was experimenting with other legal strategies. His clients had been injured, horribly so—justifying the personal-injury claims. But often the abuser was simply moved to another parish, as Adamson had been in Anderson’s first abuse case. This gave Anderson another idea.

A few years ago, Anderson started filing suits alleging that, in covering up abuses, church leaders had perpetrated fraud. This novel approach had a distinct advantage: In many states, including Minnesota, the statute-of-limitations clock in personal-injury cases starts running immediately after the abuse takes place, but in fraud cases, the clock starts running when the victim realizes the fraud. Thus, a victim who was molested by a priest in years earlier, but remained unaware that the church had covered up the situation, suddenly had grounds for a fraud suit.

Defense attorneys for the Catholic Church have protested that Anderson is trying to dress personal-injury suits up as something they’re not. But in 2007, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with Anderson. A number of fraud cases he had filed there, including four filed in connection with the headmaster Murphy, could go forward. Anderson took statements from the archbishop of Milwaukee, and submitted routine requests for church documents pertaining to Murphy. It took three years, but the documents he got by way of reply this spring led straight to the pope.

This spring, Anderson decided it was time to sue on behalf of John Doe 16. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the first suit he had filed against the Vatican. He had filed another in Oregon in 2002. The church tried to get it thrown out, arguing that, as a sovereign state, the Holy See could not be sued. But Anderson countered that the abuse case at hand qualified as an exception. The injuries were caused by a representative of the Vatican acting within the scope of his office or employment, thus fitting the legal description necessary for such a suit to proceed. In March 2009, a federal appeals court agreed with him, and in June, the U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand. Eventually, Anderson will face off against the Vatican in a courtroom in Portland.

John Doe 16’s suit also alleges fraud by Catholic Church leaders, but it is premised on a different theory than the Oregon case. Anderson alleges that because the Vatican engages in commercial activity in the United States, it can be held accountable as a business. Anderson fully anticipates that it, too, will spend years wending its way through the appeals process. He has begun to doubt that a workable process for handling church sex-abuse cases will be created in his lifetime.
 

IT’S NEARLY 1 P.M. Anderson readies himself to step before the cameras to talk about his suit against the Holy See.

But one detail has yet to be addressed: John Doe 16 isn’t comfortable talking publicly, so Anderson has asked another man molested by Father Murphy to stand in for him at the press conference. He welcomes Dean Weissmuller and his wife, Nancy, from Phoenix, into his office. Like the priest’s other victims, Dean is deaf. He counts on Nancy to interpret.

Anderson makes them comfortable at a large wooden table in his office and sets John Doe 16’s letters on the polished wood surface. “This is going to upset you,” he says. “But I know you can deal with that.” He reaches across the table and closes his hands over Dean’s. They exchange tight smiles.

Dean pushes the file to Nancy and she reads the letters. As she signs the contents, he pulls out two tattered, paperbound yearbooks and searches out the faces of people mentioned in the correspondence. Anderson copies a photo of Murphy that he’ll hand out at the press conference announcing the suit.

It will go off without a hitch. Standing next to a flat-screen TV showing highlighted passages from the letters and photos of Pope Benedict and other church leaders, Anderson and his aides will outline the case. Anderson will read from John Doe 16’s letters. No newspaper would ever quote the most repulsive passages, but the reporters will read them and be moved.

With Nancy’s help, Dean will say that he wants priests held to the same laws as other men. There will be questions, and then a sudden quiet as the reporters rush off to file their stories. Anderson will embrace Dean and Nancy and thank them for coming. Once again, Jeff Anderson will have bent the media to his purposes. The Vatican will be forced to reply to his accusations.

Anderson is not about to let up. The satellite truck will stay parked outside, broadcasting the news. “I have been doing this for 27 years,” Anderson says. “The thing that has changed is we have the attention of the world.”
 

Contributing editor Beth Hawkins wrote about St. Paul’s cold-case unit in the May issue of Minnesota Monthly.

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