Jeff Anderson on law school, legal tactics and his
ultimate goal—deposing Pope Benedict XVI
BY CHRISTY DESMITH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LARRY MARCUS
Jeff Anderson’s office might look like a museum, with
its stained glass windows and vintage pulpit chairs.
But the firm’s harried staff hardly resembles the
hushed figures of the typical arts organization. Here,
nobody pauses to admire the antiquities. They only
stop to shout as Anderson speeds through.
“Nice article in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning,” bellows John
Wodele, a publicist on contract with Jeff Anderson & Associates.
Little surprise there. Anderson, the world’s pre-eminent counsel
for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, is a lightning rod
for media coverage. Critics have admonished Anderson for being
too cozy with the news media, since the attorney often hosts press
conferences and leaks documents on abusive priests.
Wodele inquires about an interview request from The New Yorker
Anderson says he isn’t sure he wants to deal with Jeffrey Toobin,
a staff writer for the prestigious weekly. Toobin is fishing to write
an in-depth profile on Anderson, which would require months of
lengthy interviews. “It’s not about me,” Anderson says as he dashes
past his co-workers and starts climbing an elaborate staircase to
his second-floor office. Halfway up, without breaking stride, he
turns to finish the thought. “It’s about the kids!”
Jeff Anderson & Associates is situated within a historic
Romanesque building in downtown St. Paul. There’s antique
plasterwork, oak paneling. Hanging outside Anderson’s private
office, there’s a painting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
In one corner in his office, there’s a classicist sculpture depicting
a Steinbeck-like scene: a woman breastfeeds a famished
clergyman. In another corner, a painting of Anderson’s hero, his
inspiration for going to law school—Clarence Darrow.
Another notable accessory is the Kleenex—two fresh boxes, one
on the conference table and another on Anderson’s desk.
Anderson sits down, stretches his arms and starts to recount the
origins of his career. In the mid-’60s, Anderson was a college dropout
and a young parent. “A kid with a kid,” he says. After returning to the
University of Minnesota to finish his undergraduate degree, Anderson
became involved with the peace and civil rights movements. “I
became engaged with the world for the first time,” he remembers.
Graduating in 1970 with a double-major in journalism and
political science, Anderson bounced between jobs. He worked in
advertising; he sold shoes. “None of the jobs felt meaningful,” he
says. “Then I read Attorney for the Damned about Clarence Darrow.
Suddenly I thought, ‘Wow, look what he did!’ So I said, ‘Maybe I’ll
go to night school.’”
Anderson struggled through William Mitchell College of Law. “I
could not identify with a study of the past when I wanted to focus on
the future,” he says. His awakening didn’t come until his third year in
school. Anderson volunteered for the college’s legal aid clinic, and
successfully defended a homeless man against charges of indecent
exposure (the man was black and was caught urinating in a church
that had a white, wealthy congregation). “The thing lit me up,”
says Anderson. “I was able to help that man and argue it was racial
discrimination. The case was dismissed and I said, ‘Oh, my God! I had
something to do with it.’
“So, when I got out of law school, I started my own practice.
I started to identify with the dispossessed, the disempowered
and the oppressed,” says Anderson. Thanks to a referral from a
colleague, Anderson was hired in 1983 by the family of Greg Riedle,
a troubled young man and former altar boy at St. Thomas Aquinas
Catholic Church of St. Paul Park. Riedle claimed to have suffered
sexual abuse at the hands of his priest, Rev. Thomas Adamson.
After a two-year discovery period—replete with perjuring bishops
and an anonymous source—Anderson and his team built a rock-
solid case against Adamson. They also discovered bishops from the