Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

 

In the civil suit Anderson will file in just a few weeks, the plaintiff is known only as John Doe. He is 48. His glory days were spent playing Division I sports and working summers as a bouncer. Since then, his thick, beefy hands have been ground up by a string of blue-collar jobs. His liver is bloated from cheap booze, his heart pounded by a regiment of recreational drugs. He was married in the Catholic Church, where his children still attend mass on Sundays, but these days he prefers to stay at home and watch ESPN. He can't look at a priest. The sight of that clerical collar, starched good-guy white, makes him dizzy with rage.

"I heard you one day doing an interview on the radio, when I was working in the garage," he tells Anderson after they shake hands in a nondescript conference room. "I said to myself, 'Here's a man who can help me. Here's a man who understands what I've been through. Here's a man I can finally believe in.'"

Diana Watters

As Doe begins to tell his story, Anderson downshifts. His frantic mannerisms are replaced by a soothing stage whisper. He asks few questions, and he asks them tenderly. How old were you? Where did he take you? How many times did it happen? Did he rape you? He listens without interrupting, digesting every detail, wincing as the memories are choked up like bile. I was 16. He took me to his summer cabin. It happened over and over. He raped me.

By the end, Anderson is leaning close to his new client, eyes brimming with empathy. He knows what it feels like when loneliness breeds rage and reality blurs, when drugs and alcohol are the only way to numb memory. He knows that when you first tell a secret, you risk feeling even more pain and shame. But everything is going to change now, he tells the man. That's what happens when a victim breaks the silence.

"I want to kill the son of a bitch," his new client confesses, tears streaming through two days' worth of stubble.

Anderson slides a box of Kleenex across the table. "I know you do, man. I know you do." Then he sits back to honor the silence with a moment of his own. "I'm your lawyer. I'm going to represent you. I can't promise anything, but I can tell you're serious. I can tell this guy is a perp. And we're going to go after him."

After insisting that Doe see a therapist and tell his family about the abuse, Anderson finally leaves an associate to finish the paperwork and speed-walks back to his office in silence, chin on chest, fists clenched at his sides.

Back at his desk, the phone is ringing. Another reporter is on the line, but as Anderson begins to field questions, his cell phone chimes in too. A scheduled appointment sounds a warning clang on his computer. Anderson stares straight ahead, past four mugs of cold coffee and out the window. "It's the same old story," he says flatly. "These guys see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. But it's out in the open now. And I say shame on them. Yes, you can quote me. Shame. On. Them."

 

The first case was a fluke. Anderson says he "stubbed his toe" on it in the early 1980s, a decade into his legal career. "I thought it was just an isolated incident," he says now. "I had no idea how ugly it was, how deep it would take me."

Greg Riedle was a minor serving time for molesting a younger child. When he told his parents that he'd learned his behavior from the family priest, they paid a visit to the bishop, who seemed neither surprised by the allegation nor particularly keen to do anything about it. The couple approached Anderson, who was stunned to find that the Catholic Church had not been sued successfully in such a case. He undertook an investigation that convinced him there had been a cover-up "all the way to the archbishop," and launched a lawsuit. In 1984, after church officials denied in depositions that they knew about the priest's history of sexual abuse, the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul reportedly offered over $1 million to settle the case out of public view. Riedle was tempted by the offer. Anderson, who says he was troubled by the church's insistence on confidentiality, talked him out of it, filed suit, and called the press.

"When I went to the media and it hit the news, all these other people started coming out of the woodwork," Anderson recalls. "I started to realize, 'Shit, man, there really is something here.'"

Anderson's firm represented 14 more alleged victims of sexual abuse soon after Riedle's case went public. Most of those cases were eventually settled out of court. When the jury in a trial against the Archdiocese of Winona found for the plaintiff and set punitive damages at $2.7 million and compensatory damages at $883,000, Anderson made national headlines.

Over the next 10 years, Anderson filed over 200 suits against religious organizations, a majority of them sex-abuse complaints against the Catholic Church. The most notorious involved James Porter, an alleged repeat offender who took his act from state to state.

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