Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church
Diana Watters

Who will show up in the office today? Jeff Anderson, the wisecracking ambulance chaser with a reputation for hunting priests and an advanced degree in self-promotion, the guy more than a few Catholics have secretly prayed to have consigned eternally to hell? Or Jeff Anderson, tireless champion of the bullied, born-again sober, and obsessed with exposing monsters cloaked in piety?

No one knows for sure. Not even him. Because once he takes up a cause, he will be anyone and do anything to make it his crusade. That's the reason he keeps winning, the press keeps calling, and the Catholic Church has finally had to meet him at the bargaining table. It's why his clients love him, even as he asks them to wallow publicly in their pain and takes 40 percent for the trouble.

When Jeff Anderson puts on the gloves, he'll be damned if he's not in the winner's circle come Judgment Day. And in all things that have mattered to him for 20 years, Judgment Day seems close at hand.

There are four monkeys molded out of ivory-colored plastic side by side on a six-inch piece of wood. Left to right, each otherwise identical figurine covers a different part of his anatomy: eyes, ears, mouth, and crotch. Sitting alone on a windowsill, practically hidden behind an antique kneeler, the statuette is the smallest, least remarkable ornament in Anderson's schizophrenically decorated corner office 10 stories above downtown St. Paul. It's also his favorite, a comic device to help him explain how he's managed to make tens of millions of dollars suing the Catholic Church.

"It's a culture that operates in complete secrecy. They are not accountable to anyone outside for anything--to any government, agency, or individual," Anderson exclaims in a half-shout. (He often talks as though he's addressing the whole world on a speakerphone.) "Within that culture, they say that men are superior and priests are celibate. They suppress sexuality. Sexuality can't be suppressed. It creeps out. And those most accessible when it does are boys, nuns, and housekeepers--in that order. It's a matter of opportunity and access."

Anderson is pacing as he orates, gesturing with open hands, his 5'4" frame tense and shaking. All that's missing is a jury box. "They see no evil. They hear no evil. They speak no evil." On cue, he strides purposefully toward the window to grab Exhibit A. "And they have... no... genitals."

The 55-year-old attorney--gray hair slicked back brown, face weathered red from a family weekend skiing at Steamboat Springs--flashes a mischievous, perfectly polished smile and goes to answer his desk phone, which seems to ring every 30 seconds. It's a lawyer in California who, like dozens of civil attorneys from around the country, is collaborating with Anderson on a series of past, present, and future claims against the Catholic Church. "We got a new law passed in California that opens up the statute of limitations for all victims of sexual abuse. It's something we've been trying to do in several states for years," Anderson says after hanging up the phone. "And I'm not waiting for it to click in. I'm suing the shit out of them everywhere: in Sacramento, in Santa Clara, in Santa Rosa, in San Francisco, in Oakland, in L.A., and everyplace else."

Anderson's cell phone starts to chirp. His desktop computer simultaneously sounds an alarm as an associate jogs through the door in search of a complaint. He grabs the cell from the credenza behind his desk. It's a reporter from a paper in Milwaukee, where Anderson is currently laboring to prevail in a series of groundbreaking lawsuits. "The courts say you can't sue the church in Wisconsin, because it's a violation of the free expression of religion," he booms. "It's a sham and a shame. I'm ashamed to practice law in that state."

He checks e-mail while he talks, then begins to rummage through a mountain of legal pads, court documents, and press releases to find the lost brief. "Ever since the Boston Globe story broke, I've been a man in chaos in search of frenzy," he says proudly. "I'm managing 150 cases right now. I could probably manage another 150."

The morning, which started for Anderson at 6:00 a.m., is a litigious blur. There are calls from prospective clients, opposing counsel, and media from LA to London. There are quick-hit strategy sessions with his five on-site associates about cases in Washington, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and New York. A memo is prepared for a Catholic Church in Latin America, where an abusive priest from the upper Midwest was quietly dispatched to work with the poor. The itinerary for a weekend conference in Chicago is solidified, so Anderson can strategize with 30 other attorneys in his field on how best to outflank the Vatican in the "court of public opinion." By the time Anderson takes a break to eat a cup of vanilla yogurt for lunch, it is 2:00 p.m. and his secretary is in the doorway, reminding him that it's time to do an "intake" session with a prospective client--a man who has driven 300 miles to finally tell a secret he's been keeping for over 30 years.

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