Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

Critics speaking for the church dismissed the implications and attacked the messenger instead. Parishioners by and large followed their lead. Irked by Anderson's accusations and flamboyant style, they sent hate mail by the bag. "It's a good thing you were a draft-dodging weasel, for it was unanimous at my Legion club that a piece of garbage like you would have been fragged in about five minutes," one of them reads. "You are the scum maggot of this country."

Meanwhile, Anderson's legal peers began to wonder privately whether he was chasing the mother of all ambulances. Certainly, they could not help noticing that he had made the big time--hobnobbing with the prestigious defense attorneys downtown, working it in front of the press.

Anderson's wife Julie thinks they missed the point. "It really never was about the money for Jeff," she says. "Back then, it was more about the flash and the appearance of it all. He liked to play the part of the scrappy little lawyer, a down-and-dirty sort of asshole. He was an actor on a stage. And he was very good at commanding an audience."

For a time, it seemed it was all for nothing. Anderson was winning an ever-mounting number of isolated cases, and earning some face time in the media as a result, but no one besides him was connecting the dots. "I knew that this was a major, major thing. But I couldn't get anyone to really dig in and stay on the trail," he remembers. "The initial story would run, the scandal would raise a few eyebrows, and then the whole thing would disappear in days. The story would never get burned into the public consciousness."

By the mid-'90s, it was being widely reported in the media that an increasing number of victims were bringing suit based on "recovered memories" dredged up during therapy, under hypnosis or with the encouragement of a sympathetic listener. Anderson says only a "very small percentage" of cases were actually brought based on recovered memories. Because of stories about overzealous therapists who were unintentionally causing their patients to create false memories, however, there was a perception that many priests were being unjustly accused. In one of the more highly publicized misfires, a man charged Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin with sexual misconduct that had allegedly occurred 15 years before. Bernardin maintained his innocence and the plaintiff ultimately recanted.

Anderson had nothing to do with the Bernardin debacle, except that he had refused to take the case in the first place. Still, his opponents had yet another line of defense, making it all the harder to get skeptical reporters to follow up on hard-to-fathom accusations. "The Bernardin thing really hurt us," Anderson says. "They were winning the battle in the court of public opinion. We'd put the leather on them, but they always found a way to get back up. In the last six or seven years, it's fair to say the whole issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church became a forgotten issue."

By the end of the decade, Anderson's name was still popping up in the papers from time to time, but he became less of a public presence, professionally and socially. Some local lawyers wondered aloud whether he was playing it safe, keeping a low profile because of the controversy swirling around recovered memories and the Church's refusal to back down.

But the truth was that Anderson found himself in the midst of a personal odyssey to ferret out his own demons, one that would make him more likeable, credible, and dangerous.

 

"What were we talking about again?"

On an average day, Anderson gets up at 5:00 a.m., works until 9:00 p.m., runs out the last bit of steam at Lifetime Fitness, and falls into bed after midnight. So, if you want to chat casually about what makes him move, you have to do what everyone else does--sweat hours of commotion for fleeting moments of focused attention. Then, after you remind him where he hit pause during the last conversation, he will start right where he left off, oftentimes in midsentence.

"Oh yeah," Anderson chuckles, as I turn the tape recorder back on. "We were talking about my fucked-up life."

As far as anyone can tell, at least, the beginning was the mundane, middle-class stuff of a 1950s sitcom. Dad was a furniture salesman at Dayton's. Mom kept house in Edina. Jeff was the classic middle child. "It was a Leave it to Beaver scene," he likes to say.

More than a few armchair psychologists have guessed that Anderson must have been abused. From time to time he's wondered that himself. After logging hundreds of hours of therapy, though, Anderson has concluded he was just a sensitive kid. "I have this memory of me being in my room a lot, playing with toy soldiers all alone," he says. "I think there is a little boy in me that identifies with isolation, with being afraid. So when I see someone else who is powerless--it's just a deep, deep fear."

When he was 17, Anderson met Patti McDonough, a pretty girl from a big Italian family in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood. Suddenly he found himself a world away from suburbia, surrounded by gregarious characters who proudly shared their passions and problems (one sister was in a traveling circus, another was intimately involved with the black power movement). He fell in love with all of it. The wedding took place two years later.

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