He’s set his sights on
an ambitious target:
the Holy See, the
of the Catholic Church.
Diocese of Winona and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
who knew of Adamson’s tendencies and had lied under oath about
his behavior. In fact, the priest had been unloaded onto St. Thomas
Aquinas after another scandal involving sexual misconduct in another
parish in Winona.
Though the criminal statute of limitations had passed,
Anderson and the Riedles moved ahead with a civil suit. In 1984,
the defendants—the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis,
the Diocese of Winona, and St. Thomas Aquinas—called to offer
a handsome settlement, up to $1 million. The only problem, says
Anderson, was that the church asked for something in return—they
wanted the Riedles to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Anderson couldn’t sleep that night. The next day he phoned
Riedle and said, “Greg, there’s other kids.” As Anderson
remembers it, Riedle told him: “Turn it down. I trust you. But do it
quick before I change my mind.”
FROM A LEGAL STANDPOINT, ANDERSON FACES A RECURRING
obstacle—by the time clients muster the courage to retain
Anderson’s services, it’s often too late for criminal charges.
Minnesota has a special statute of limitations for sexual abuse
cases (Minn. Stat. 541.073), which provides the plaintiff with six
years after they “knew or had reason to know that the injury was
caused by the sexual abuse.” But, says Anderson, “the courts
routinely deny justice because of statute of limitations.”
“[The solution] I use most defensibly is fraud,” says Anderson.
Statutes of limitations apply differently to fraud—in Minnesota, for
example, it doesn’t begin to run until the fraudulent concealment
is reasonably discovered.
Not unlike employers who keep confidential personnel files, the
church keeps extremely secret files on priests and other employees.
What’s more, the Catholic Church adheres to canon law, a continental
system of codified laws that emphasize secrecy and confidentiality.
(The church’s legal system more closely resembles those of France
and Italy.) Canon law even requires each diocese to keep secret
archives on sensitive materials, including all penal investigations.
When Anderson finally gets his hands on them, he says, the
clandestine documents often reveal a disturbing trend: The church
has the habit of quietly removing abusive priests from their posts.
From there, the men are ferreted to rehabilitation centers (per church
protocol with alcoholic clergy) and transferred to dioceses in other
cities, states, even countries. Anderson was among the first laymen to
access these files and uncover the church’s troubling practice.
“I kicked open the door into a world of deceit, deception, lies,
duplicity and secrecy,” he says. “When the church tells its community
that the priest is fit, safe and celibate, when they knew he isn’t any
one of the three, that is a misrepresentation. That is a fraud.”
Ever since the Riedle case, “My phone started ringing and it hasn’t
stopped,” says Anderson. His firm has been involved with high-profile
cases against the archdioceses of Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia,
Milwaukee and more. In all, the firm has filed more than 2,000 sex-
abuse cases against the Catholic Church and other institutions.
“I WORK FROM THE HEART, NOT THE HEAD,” SAYS ANDERSON.
This explains why the litigator is cagey on legal topics. Curiously,
Anderson seems more comfortable when the subject turns to the
divine. The agnostic attorney mentions his work is fulfilling—“it
nourishes my spirit.” He points to a big settlement with the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which stipulated the mass removal of
abusive priests, and says, “Think of the kids whose souls were saved!”
Anderson’s relationships with clients are close. “When you go
to Jeff’s office, you’re greeted with a hug,” explains Jim Keenan of
Savage, a current client. Keenan relies on Anderson for emotional
support. “I’ve got Jeff’s personal cell phone. I’ve called [Anderson]
at his office at 2 in the morning when I was having terrible times,
and I got a callback,” he says.
Critics accuse Anderson of baiting the media with the
heartbreaking stories of his clients. “Sure, he’s a headline-chaser,
but he’s only being proactive,” says Anson D. Shupe, a sociologist
at Indiana University-Purdue University and author of the book
Rogue Clerics: The Social Problem of Clergy Deviance. “Rather than
settle out of court and seal the record, Jeff has learned the church
is impervious to all but the most intense pressure.”
This explains why Anderson’s settlements tend toward the
creative, with mechanisms for exposing abusers to the media. A
recent example is the March 2010 settlement Anderson reached
with Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville. It stipulated for the release of
the names of 17 monks with “credible allegations of sexual abuse,” in
addition to an undisclosed dollar amount on behalf of nine plaintiffs.
Others wonder whether Anderson is motivated by the hefty payouts
from these settlements. The Washington Post, in 2002, wrote that
Anderson himself estimated that total recoveries amounted to $60
million. He’s no longer willing to update that figure and he does not
publically speak about his own compensation. “We’re doing what we
can to protect kids from further harm, and we continue to work with
the wounded,” he insists. Whatever the guiding purpose, Anderson
collects as much as 40 percent from each settlement. His largest
settlement to date was a 2007 settlement with the Archdiocese of Los
Angeles for around half a billion dollars.
“ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME.” ANDERSON IS FOND OF SAYING
that. Over the years, he has come to believe that Vatican officials
are ultimately responsible for swapping priests and enforcing the
culture of secrecy. So he’s set his sights on an ambitious target:
He wants to sue the Holy See, the centralized government of the
Catholic Church. In particular, Anderson wants to depose Pope
Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. The pontiff played a
dubious role in sex-abuse scandals in his former job as Prefect
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the CDF, the
office that investigates abuse of the sacraments.
“I think Anderson misunderstands or misrepresents the
structure of the church,” says Robert Kennedy, professor of
Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas and co-director
of the University’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic
Thought, Law and Public Policy. “Anderson assumes the Catholic