(NPR) St. Paul, Minn. — Jeffrey Anderson grew up in Edina. He’s a self-described former hippie. He’s been a roofer. He’s gone to a food shelf to feed his wife and son, and counts a public urination case as one of his most formative experiences as a lawyer.
It’s an unorthodox resume for the man who thinks he may be bringing the Catholic Church to a watershed moment in history.
Recent disclosures of church documents in Wisconsin and northern Minnesota have brought Anderson’s 30-year legal campaign against child abuse by clergy to the gates of the Vatican. The effort has made him a millionaire. It’s also made him reviled by some of the church’s most faithful.
The lawsuits he’s brought against Catholic leaders have shown that some of the highest officials in the church refused to take action against priests accused of abusing children.
In recent weeks, Anderson has even found documents including Joseph Ratzinger in that effort — the German cardinal that became Pope Benedict XVI.
Anderson isn’t humble about his impact on the church.
“They’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, and I believe they are going to have a reformation,” Anderson said. “I hope they suffer enough to change enough that they start to think about the kids, instead of their reputation.”
Critics say the only reputation that Anderson really cares about is his own.
Joe Maher founded Detroit-based Opus Bono Sacerdotii eight years ago, to offer financial and personal support to priests accused of abuse.
Maher concedes the Catholic Church has problem. But he says Anderson is making a lucrative living exploiting those failings and intimidating church officials.
“The bishops and the insurance companies that represent the dioceses — they’re afraid of Jeff Anderson, in some sense,” Maher said. “It’s not a matter of justice. It’s a matter of what are we going to have to settle for, (for) Jeff Anderson to go away.”
Finding his calling
Whatever his motives, Anderson is an unlikely nemesis for the world’s largest and oldest institution.
He’s the son of a Dayton’s furniture salesman and a housewife. He says his youth was mostly uneventful, although he dropped out of college when he was 18 and got his girlfriend pregnant. He grew up Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism to marry her.
“She was very Catholic. And I loved her. And we were kids, and we were going to have a kid,” Anderson said.
The young family got off to a rough start. Anderson worked two jobs and shoveled coal at night to pay the rent. He also began what would become decades of unrepentant alcoholism. He experimented with drugs, and confesses he paid more attention to causes like protesting the Vietnam War than to being a father or husband.
But 40 years ago he found his calling at William Mitchell College of Law’s legal aid clinic. It was run by future Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl.
As a student in Wahl’s clinic, Anderson was assigned to defend a St. Paul man charged with indecent exposure after he was caught urinating in public. In court, Anderson argued his client wouldn’t be facing a sex charge if he wasn’t black. The charge was dropped.
Anderson said it was a transformative moment in which he saw how he could make a difference in someone’s life. He threw himself into a new legal career.
He claims to have been the hardest working public defender in St. Paul 30 years ago — and says he has a divorce to show for it.
Clergy abuse cases begin with a phone call
What would become Anderson’s 30-year legal battle against clergy sex abuse began with an odd phone call.
In 1983, another lawyer called him out of the blue. Some friends had a son in jail on a sex charge, and the case had taken an unusual turn.
“This family went to him and said, ‘Our son had been abused by a priest, and we just found out about it, can you help?’ And he said, ‘Well, I can’t take them on, but I know a rotten little bastard that might,'” Anderson recalled.
Almost by accident, Anderson started a long legal struggle with the church in Minnesota, where he found Fr. Tom Adamson had a history of sexual misconduct with children in Winona and South St. Paul. Church officials had been moving Adamson from parish to parish as allegations rose against him.
Anderson won $1 million settlement against the church for priest child molestation, in what he says was the first case ever made public by the Catholic clergy.
Word of the victory drew attention of other victims, who started to seek out Anderson. He eventually dropped his public defender practice. In the next 15 years, Anderson picked up hundreds more cases and won tens of millions of dollars in settlements.
Still, by the mid-’90s, Anderson said he’d given up hope of getting the church’s attention. He said he could make the church pay, but not stop what it was doing.
Then in 2002, an abuse scandal in Boston brought to light hundreds of documents, some laying out allegations dating back to the early 1960s. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign, and U.S. bishops met in Dallas to lay out reforms.
“So I embark on a mission, to sort of take this on nationally. So I start to sue every bishop in the U.S.,” Anderson said.
Documents yield new allegations
As in the Boston cases, Anderson’s lawsuits got a trove of documents from the legal discovery process, detailing internal church communications around the country and with Rome. The documents took years to gather and sift through.
About six weeks ago, Anderson’s legal partner Mike Finnegan found documents showing the Vatican itself had declined to defrock a priest known to have molested hundreds of deaf boys in Wisconsin — although the allegations were decades old.
Anderson and Finnegan have tracked other priests accused of abuse to India and Italy. In the last month, what Anderson started as a one-man campaign has gone global. He’s been on the front page of the New York Times.
But the worldwide church has scarcely acknowledged Anderson.
Anderson is part of a lawsuit against the Vatican that the church has been fighting in court for the last four years. It’s next stop may be the U.S. Supreme Court.
And days after Anderson’s latest revelations, Pope Benedict’s own pastor compared legal challenges to the church with historic attacks against Jews.
In Minnesota, church officials are more circumspect.
Fr. Kevin McDonough, a priest at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, said Anderson has played a key role in helping press for change in the church.
McDonough is the former vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and has dealt personally with some of Anderson’s allegations.
“If Jeff Anderson didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him,” said McDonough. “Somebody has to push the institution for the safety of the vulnerable. Jeff has served an important role.”
But McDonough said he does not think Anderson is offering abuse victims the healing they need to move on with their lives.
“I think Jeff, for his own profession, needs to keep victims angry,” said McDonough. “Now, you have to get angry to tell your story. But you can’t stay angry to get healed.”
For his part, Anderson makes no apologies for his efforts — or from his profession. Anderson freely admits he’s become a millionaire fighting the church in court.
His downtown St. Paul office is lined with gothic antiques and leather upholstery. There’s a prayer kneeler in one corner and a Buddhist shrine downstairs. A window near his sprawling desk is flanked by pictures of his six children and adventure travel vacations, such as ski trips by helicopter.
“I’ve got some nice stuff. And you’re sitting in one of the nicest offices you’ve ever been in,” Anderson said.
But he says he isn’t in it for the money.
Anderson said he has learned from his own failings. He said the church needs to go through the same steps he took during his treatment for alcoholism in 1997. The treatment calls for a searching internal evaluation, an accounting of the people that have been hurt, and a wide-ranging effort to make amends.
“The pope doesn’t have to step down. The pope just has to step up,” said Anderson. “The pope has to step up and do what Jesus would have done. Speak the truth. Protect the sick, the vulnerable, the needy and the children. Do justice. Acknowledge your own flaws and defects and stop the lies.”
On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI made his closest allusion to the recent allegations, and the worldwide furor they’ve caused, at a Mass inside the Vatican for members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
“I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘repent,’ which seemed too tough,” Benedict said. “But now under attack from the world, which has been telling us about our sins … we realize that it’s necessary to repent, in other words, recognize what is wrong in our lives.”
View: Original Story on MPR
St. Paul attorney on the front lines of church abuse crisis
by Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
April 16, 2010