St. Petersburg Times Online: World and Nation

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Taking on the church

To Jeffrey Anderson, his campaign against sexual abuse by priests is a lucrative but righteous cause. Others question his motives.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2002

To Jeffrey Anderson, his campaign against sexual abuse by priests is a lucrative but righteous cause. Others question his motives.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Long before the $500,000 Victorian house in the suburbs and the condo in the mountains and the quaint inn he bought on a whim, the young Minnesota lawyer met his first client.

Jeffrey Anderson was broke. He wanted to change the world, but he couldn't even afford groceries. He was ready to quit.

Then came the client, a homeless drifter who wandered into a Catholic Church. The police said he exposed himself. The drifter said he just wanted to use a church bathroom.

Anderson, believing him, fashioned an argument. He won the case.

"I got it dismissed, and it was exhilarating," Anderson says. "The law came alive for me. It felt like it was meant to be, like I was meant to be a lawyer."

Anderson chuckles at the memory 25 years later. Imagine that: The church indirectly helped him find his calling.

"Isn't life funny?" he says.

Anderson has since become a lawyer reviled by church leaders, a man the Catholic League calls an ideologue for his 17-year campaign against sexual abuse by priests. In a room packed with reporters last week in St. Petersburg, he opened his latest battle against the church by announcing a lawsuit aimed at the Pope, the Vatican and the St. Petersburg diocese.

The Catholic church, and to a lesser extent other faiths and Protestant denominations, have paid Anderson and his clients more than $60-million in settlements for cases involving priests accused of molesting the faithful.

Those are numbers even his enemies don't dispute, and up to 40 percent of the cut has gone to Anderson and his staff of a dozen lawyers.

Since the mid 1980s, he has filed more than 500 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by clergy, including lawsuits in a third of the Catholic dioceses in the nation. He has won the only three punitive damage verdicts ever awarded against the church.

By most accounts, no lawyer in the nation has filed more lawsuits against the church and few, if any, have won as much money.

"I don't apologize for the money I've made from the church," he said in an interview Friday at his plush St. Paul office. "Every time I make one dollar, I make two or more for my clients. I'm the one who took the risk and took their case free of charge and helped get them justice."

To Anderson, it's all a righteous, if profitable, crusade.

Others are less sure of his motives.

"I don't think he does this to fight evil," says Andrew Eisenzimmer, outside counsel for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese. "His sense of righteousness dovetails nicely with his need to pursue big claims against big institutions."

But his clients don't begrudge Anderson his financial windfall.

"If church leaders would simply do what Jesus would do, Jeff would be out of business," says David Clohessy, whom Anderson represented in an unsuccessful clergy abuse claim.

It's two days after the St. Petersburg press conference. Anderson, 54, sits behind a large oak desk that was a prop in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act. In the movie, the desk belonged to the bishop.

Expensive art adorns his office. Local defense lawyers jokingly call it the "Vatican Art Collection." They might as well; the church paid for it.

One painting is called Priest Cape, a dark work showing what appears to be a priest cloaked in darkness and shadow.

By a back wall are the trophies of which he is proudest: the hate mail. Anderson keeps some letters framed, he says, to remind him of the madness he is trying to change.

"My God lawyers have a horrible reputation for getting rich on human misery," one letter says. "But you carry the profession from the swamps to the cesspool. Enjoy your misery money."

None of it bothers Anderson, a short man with a narrow build who works out daily as a way to let off steam.

Anderson's lawsuit against the Vatican brought the lawyer a splash of publicity in newspapers across the country.

Now, People magazine wants to shoot a pictorial at his house on Sunday. He's got a CNN interview at 4. The New York Times calls him on his cell phone. A Miami radio station asks Anderson if he has any Spanish-speaking clients they can interview.

And the people who say they are victims of priests call, too. Three are scheduled to fly in the next day; Anderson pays for their flights. One man tells Anderson the Catholic Church bought him a $9,000 truck years ago after he reported being abused.

"They bought the guy off to make him go away," Anderson says angrily during a meeting with several of his lawyers. "We're flying him in tomorrow."

He has fielded more than a dozen calls from others who have stepped forward.

Anderson radiates an intensity that borders on the manic. He jumps from one conversation to the next; he swears; he screams; he bridles at anything he views as church intransigence.

He speaks to a client in California about troubles facing Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, himself now accused of abusing a woman in 1969.

"Mahony's on fire right now," Anderson says gleefully. "The big red bird is going down!"

Later, a man from the Northeast calls about being abused by a priest. He is still struggling about telling police, much less filing suit. Anderson tries to talk him into doing both.

"Does your wife know?" Anderson asks. "Your wife needs to know. . . . I've got to tell you right now, the odds of collecting money are slim. They might want to negotiate with you. No, I can't give you odds."

Then Anderson asks him, "What's the name of the perp?'

That's Anderson-speak for: Who's the priest?

"The first thing we've got to do, man, is get the priest out of there," Anderson says. "I can't do it alone. I need your help."

Anderson doubts the man will contact police. "They feel shame and guilt," he says. "They're afraid of the power of the church."

Anderson is a Minnesota native who attended the University of Minnesota, graduating with highest honors with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and psychology.

His first job out of college was with a prominent Chicago ad agency. But Anderson says he lasted 48 hours, bored by the work and feeling somehow that he had sold himself out for the good-paying job.

Later, he attended law school at night in St. Paul, working days at various odd jobs to pay the bills.

Anderson says he was very counter-culture and protested the Vietnam War. Sometimes, the law bored him and he studied little. He flunked out his second year and was lucky to later be re-admitted.

He worked as a public defender for years after graduating in 1975. In private practice, he says he took on unpopular causes, representing homosexuals, or black firefighters fighting wage discrimination. He became known as a maverick.

His first date with his soon-to-be second wife, Julie, was at a party thrown for him at a gay bar after its owners, whom he represented, were acquitted of assaulting police.

"We had some lean years back then," said Julie Anderson of the mid 1980s. "We barely had money for a cup a coffee some days."

That changed starting in 1985 when a local lawyer, a devout Catholic, referred a case to Anderson. The lawyer's neighbors said a priest had abused their son.

The lawyer, Tom Krauel, says he referred the case to Anderson because he knew his friend was unafraid of sacred cows.

"It wasn't because he was antichurch or anti-God. He isn't," Krauel says. "It was because he was one heck of a good trial attorney."

It was a difficult case that few lawyers would have tackled. The church, Anderson says, stonewalled. The church eventually settled the case for more than $1-million.

A wave of publicity led to 14 more cases for Anderson. His reputation was made. Since then, the calls have never really stopped.

"I had never experienced publicity like that before," Anderson says. "I wasn't ready for what followed. I never expected it."

He has learned to embrace the press. He says it gets the word out. It brings victims out; it pressures the church to mend its ways. Critics say it's all about self-promotion.

"He does everything he can to try these cases outside the courtroom with the media," said the Rev. John Malone, a St. Paul priest at a church just a few blocks from Anderson's office. "I think he has done some good work. At the same time, he's also portrayed the church as essentially an evil institution, and that isn't fair."

Anderson says he understands that the church does good work. But he says the church also has been slow to respond to a crisis.

It's one reason, he says, that he's now suing the Vatican and Pope in St. Petersburg and Oregon, after all these hundreds of lawsuits. Anderson says he thought he could get the church to mend its ways. But despite all the litigation, he says it won't. So now, he's taking a different angle of attack.

Anderson says he was waiting for the right case, the right victim. He says he found the perfect victim in Rick Gomez, who says a brother at Mary Help of Christians School in Hillsborough County abused him 14 years ago. The school is a part of the St. Petersburg diocese, which covers five counties.

The case involves allegations of church leaders moving priests across state lines to hide abuse.

"It led me to an inescapable conclusion it's a rooted problem that comes from the top," Anderson says.

What made the case against the St. Petersburg diocese so compelling was Gomez, says Anderson.

When Gomez called him, Anderson flew him to St. Paul and realized he had a rarity: an alleged victim who was willing to be identified by the press. And just as rare: Gomez's mother had reported the alleged abuse to police.

At the news conference at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort, Gomez wept as he recounted his allegations before two dozen reporters from around the country.

"If he couldn't show pain, I wouldn't have wanted him to do it," Anderson says.

Yet, some accuse him of exaggerating abuse claims for maximum effect, and they see the Vatican lawsuit as a typical example. They say the lawsuit will never pass muster in the courts.

"It frustrates those of us who go against him who aren't prone to such puffery," says Eisenzimmer, the lawyer who has opposed Anderson in court more than any other.

Anderson, a father of six children from two marriages, says the abuse he has seen has turned him away from organized religion. He is a non-practicing Lutheran, though his first wife was a Catholic and they were married in a Catholic church.

He says friends and family are unbothered by his work. His mother, Eleanor, in fact, lives in Clearwater and was sitting in the front row of her son's St. Petersburg news conference.

When it was over, Anderson says, his mother told him, "If your father were alive, he would be proud."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.