Making the Church Pay
Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson has made millions from lawsuits.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — If you follow the money in the majority of the sexual-abuse settlements paid by the Catholic Church in the United States, one name crops up over and over: Jeff Anderson.
Anderson sees himself as a modern-day “crusader,” but instead of trying to protect the Church, he says he’s on a mission to “reform” it. He’s made a business out of suing the Church.
According to The Washington Post, since 1983, Jeff Anderson & Associates has filed more than 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic Church and another 2,000 to 3,000 against other individuals and entities, including other denominations.
“If I had done this for money, I could have stopped doing this a long time ago,” Anderson told The New York Times.
While he’s fond of saying that most of his lawsuits do not net any money, Anderson has earned millions, collecting between 25%-40% of each payout. In 2002, he estimated that his victories had to date totaled $60 million, reported The Washington Post.
Anderson is responsible for the majority of the approximately $2.5 billion that the Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid to sex abuse victims to date.
“I’m suing the s--- out of them everywhere,” Anderson told the Twin Cities tabloid City Pages.
At least seven American dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, due to financial strain caused by the cost of sexual-abuse lawsuits.
Anderson, who grew up Lutheran, doesn’t hide his dislike for organized religion and the Catholic Church, which he has described as a “fugitive from the truth.”
“I’ve been disturbed by the conduct of the bishops,” he said. “When these issues first emerged in the 1980s, the bishops’ response was denial, minimization and blame. I have a deep disdain for the practices that many have employed.”
A graduate of St. Paul’s William Mitchell College of Law, Anderson worked part-time for the Ramsey County, Minn., public defender’s office while starting up his own private practice. He earned a reputation for taking on civil rights cases — representing homosexual activists, black firefighters and transients.
His first lawsuit against the Catholic Church was filed in 1983. That suit was filed against the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, Minn. It was the first lawsuit brought against a U.S. Catholic diocese for alleged sexual abuse, and it won more than $1 million for the client.
Critics of Anderson say that while the attorney appears to be on the side of the victim, he uses self-promotional tactics for the purpose of securing additional clients.
For example, they cite Anderson’s practice of holding press conferences and media events to make such allegations public, often before notifying either the diocese or the accused.
When Anderson brought a civil case against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in April 2002, he held a press conference on the downtown courthouse steps alongside two alleged victims and a dozen supporters. Afterward, he walked two blocks to deliver the suit at the cathedral. Two months later, Anderson repeated the same publicity tactic on the courthouse steps in Saint Cloud, Minn., with two alleged victims who were suing St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
That could be a problem, said one attorney.
“Fifteen years ago I used to get calls from a plaintiff’s lawyer,” said Patrick Schiltz, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, who between 1987 and 1995 defended churches from all major denominations in approximately 500 clergy sexual-abuse cases. “They said they were going to file a suit. Unless we paid, they said they were going to hold a press conference the next day at a hotel.”
Anderson told the Register that such tactics help raise publicity so that others who have been abused know that they are not alone — and feel free to come forward.
But Schiltz said, “They want to punish the Church with publicity and also generate further cases.”
Once allegations have been made, whether the accused is guilty or not, the damage is already done.
“There has been a suspension of, and disregard for the time-honored principle of innocence until proven guilt,” said Steve Gottwalt, a Minnesota state legislator and former director of communications with the Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minn.
“I’ve been in the position to get a call from media personnel who say they have a release of accusations and want to know what the Church has to say,” said Gottwalt. “Moments later, the news release crosses our fax machines. We cannot comment on what we haven’t seen, so the Church ends up looking like it’s trying to hide something.”
Suing the Vatican
Anderson has not only filed lawsuits against individual dioceses, but also against the Vatican.
“All roads lead to Rome,” Anderson has said repeatedly.
His previous suit against the Vatican was filed in 2002. The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether or not to hear that case, which involves a priest in Oregon who had previously been accused of abusing boys in Ireland and Chicago.
In April, Anderson filed a second case against the Vatican, naming Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Tarcisio Bertone and Angelo Sodano as defendants in the Wisconsin case of Father Lawrence Murphy. The suit claims that then-Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to letters about Murphy, who had been accused of molesting hundreds of deaf boys.
“Our hope is that children are protected, and until the archbishops and the cardinal and the pope involved in these abuse cases hear a jail door clang behind them, they will continue to be complicit in these crimes,” Anderson told Al Jazeera in a March interview.
“He’s a wise theologian,” Anderson said of Pope Benedict in a New York Times interview. “But when it comes to this issue, he is as sick when it comes to understanding child abuse and his role in it as I was as a practicing alcoholic.”
A U.S.-based Vatican attorney says that Anderson’s lawsuits against the Vatican stem from his own lack of understanding of how the Church is organized.
“Jeff wishes to ignore [that] this Church is administratively decentralized,” Jeffrey Lena, a California lawyer representing the Holy See, told CNN. “Decision-making takes place largely on the local level.”
Statute of Limitations
Anderson has also lobbied for the repeal of the statute of limitations in several states, including Minnesota and California.
Anderson asserts that because religious institutions have tried to cover up the crimes and created a climate where victims could not come forward, it renders the statute of limitations irrelevant. Anderson’s cases often surpass the 25-year statute of limitations set in place in most states.
Anderson was successful in having California’s statute of limitations repealed. Similar efforts have been considered in at least 12 states. Maryland and Wisconsin have successfully defeated efforts to change the statute of limitations. Arizona, Connecticut and Florida are currently considering changes. Other states, such as California, have opened one- or two-year windows during which victims/survivors can bring forth claims.
“California created a window that said that any survivor of sexual abuse by anyone had a one-year window in which to bring a cause of action,” said Anderson.
As a result, more than 600 cases were brought forward in California.
While such legislation purports to treat public and private institutions equitably, attorneys have argued that it actually often does quite the opposite, unfairly targeting nonprofits such as the Church.
Testifying before the Wisconsin State Assembly in October 2009, attorney James Birnbaum said that repealing the statute of limitations is often inequitable because of the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity. That doctrine prevents such claims from being brought against a public entity for its negligent supervision or treatment of its agents accused of child sexual abuse. Furthermore, in Wisconsin, cases involving public entities have a maximum cap of $50,000.
“Therefore, this legislation would in effect create two classes of both victims and institutions,” testified Birnbaum. “If you are sexually abused by a public agent, you have no recourse and the public entity has no obligation. The same actions by an agent of a private entity could be subject to suit without limitation and victims compensated.”
Repealing the statute of limitations makes it even more difficult for the Church to defend itself.
“The clear trend is to make it easier to bring old cases by any victim of sexual abuse,” said Schiltz. “When they are brought, the pastor is almost always dead.”
In some cases, not only was it common for the alleged abuser to be deceased, but also his superiors and bishop as well.
“As a result, a diocese is left trying to disprove that alleged abuse that occurred by a priest in 1958, who died in 1967. It’s tough to defend such a lawsuit,” said Schiltz.
“No one has talked about who are these attorneys and what are their motivations,” said Gottwalt. “With these attorneys receiving 40%, there is an unspoken profit motive. They may be champions of the downtrodden, but they are certainly making a lot of money doing it.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
- May 9-22, 2010