Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

Days were spent working as a caretaker, nights in classes at the University of Minnesota, where Anderson was turned on to "philosophy, religion, and the Third World." After graduating with a degree in mass communication and journalism, he took a job with an advertising firm in Chicago. It didn't last long. "They put me in a white room, with a white linoleum floor, a white desk, and this black machine on a desk. I thought I was on an acid trip. I ran back home."

His next job, as a shoe buyer for retail, didn't work out any better. Anderson, who had become involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements as an organizer and speaker, wanted to do something about "the injustices I saw being done against my brothers and sisters." He signed up for classes at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. During his third year, Anderson argued his first case, defending a transient who had been arrested for indecent exposure in a church basement: "The judge dismissed it, and I felt a surge of power; like, 'Oh my God, I can do something.' That was transformational."

After graduation, Anderson worked part-time for the Ramsey County public defender's office while starting up a small private practice, where he earned a reputation as a "gut fighter." "People would walk into my office and say, 'I have a problem.' I'd say, 'How much money do you have?' I 'd take whatever they had and go to work. I made a lot of contacts that way. It was 1975."

The young attorney with the long hair and scraggly beard went on to prevail in high-profile murder cases, represent gay activists fighting bathhouse raids, and file suit on behalf of black firefighters in St. Paul. By the time Greg Riedle walked through his door, Anderson was a clean-cut player. (When the subject of money comes up, Anderson will try to appear non-plussed, but plays it coy. Pressed, he will say that he has made $60 million suing the Catholic Church, and at various points in his life he's been worth anywhere from $20,000 to over $100 million. Right now he claims to be over his head in debt, but has property and other assets--including a house in Steamboat Springs and a stylish bed-and-breakfast in Stillwater--and is quick to note that "he's not hurting.")

Anderson and his first wife had two children. Then he screwed it all up. They divorced in 1979. "This is not a secret," he says, "I wasn't able to live an honest life. I had a lot of relationships. I wasn't ever true to my values."

Anderson met Julie Aronson in 1981, at a legal conference in Aspen, Colorado. They lived together for five years and were married in 1987. Soon afterward, Anderson started repeating himself. "Here's the thing," he confides. "Alcohol was always my first love. My whole life was me, alcohol, and everyone else. It really created a barrier to love or to trust or to be trustworthy. I was so grandiose, so out of touch with myself. I was very, very secretive and manipulative. It was insanity."

By 1997, the couple had three young boys and was on the brink of divorce. Julie knew her husband was trapped at the bottom of a bottle, but she issued no ultimatums. "I never would have said, 'You quit or I'll leave,'" she says. "Jeff doesn't respond well to things like that. He still doesn't. It would've been a death sentence. He had to figure it out himself." The big light went on the morning after Anderson got knockdown-drunk at his 50th birthday party. He got dressed for his weekly golf game, picked up the phone, called a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous and simply said, "It's time." That was that. Cold turkey.

"If I wouldn't have stopped drinking, I would have had the same values--basic human values like peace, justice, and kindness--but I wouldn't have been living them," he says. "I couldn't live honestly, so all my other values either got diluted or corrupted."

"It began the big meltdown. The big thaw," Julie observes. "When he was drinking, he didn't have time to be introspective or thoughtful about what he was doing. He was seen as publicity-seeking for all the wrong reasons--out there having a tantrum to get his name in the paper. Now he's learned how to shut up and listen. It's made him a more humble, soulful, spiritual person.

"I mean, maybe no one can tell but me. But I swear if you look in his eyes, you can see it. He's a different person. He's present. He's finally happy. This is his time."

 

In the spring of 2002, a team of reporters at the Boston Globe wrote a series of painstakingly documented reports about sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, where church leaders were caught in a wide-ranging cover-up. The story, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize earlier this month, not only stuck, it motivated major news outlets to begin their investigations at dioceses all over the country. Instead of being digested as a series of isolated incidents, stories about pedophile priests became a phenomenon, a category of coverage, like police brutality or bureaucratic waste. "Those guys at the Globe just hit the thing, man. Bam, bam, bam, every single day," Anderson says admiringly. "That was the difference from every other time before. They didn't let it fade."

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