Jeff Anderson crusades against the Catholic Church

Minnesota lawyer has made millions suing

Suddenly Anderson was back on stage commanding the spotlight, clean and sober and bearing his clients' hearts on his sleeve. Considered not only a pioneer in the field but a battle-tested expert, he became ubiquitous overnight, a sure quote in stories about clergy abuse from coast to coast. "He's everything you want an attorney to be if you're a reporter," says Matt Carroll, one of the journalists who broke the Globe story. "He has lots of information, he returns your phone calls, and he has good quotes. He's one of the foremost attorneys in this area--right up there with anyone in the country. So anytime I need big-picture type comments, I give him a call."

The media blitz has been a boon for business, of course. Victims started calling Anderson's office at a rate of over a dozen a day, perhaps emboldened by a sense that the time had finally come for the church to pay its penance. For Anderson, though, the real impact of the Globe series is strategic. It's always been difficult to get the police and politicians to aggressively probe clergy in their own communities. And in many states, including Minnesota, the statute of limitations has made it impossible to pursue hundreds of potentially lucrative cases, brought by people like John Doe, who don't come forward until years after they are victimized. Suddenly the cops are interested and the Church is back on its heels. "That's the most dramatic change," says David Clohessy, executive director of a group called Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Very slowly, judges, juries, prosecutors, legislators, and police are beginning to treat abusive priests like criminals."

"This whole area has turned into a social movement," Anderson says. "It is like a reformation. In fact, it's probably the first time external forces have influenced the hierarchy significantly since the Reformation in the 16th century. My work has gone from trial lawyer to public advocate. So, I don't take a case that doesn't have a cause that can be fought in the court of public opinion. I work with the client first and the media second. This is about public advocacy now."

As is the case with any story of such magnitude, journalists covering sex in the Catholic Church have developed a drill. There are certain things they expect: anecdotal horror stories, camera-friendly press conferences, evidence--or at least soundbites--suggesting institutional conspiracy. And Anderson knows how to feed the machine--how to shift from pinstriped attack dog to conscientious reformer in mid-sentence. He has learned that when a victim's story goes public, it never hurts settlement negotiations. He knows that when that victim is standing on the steps of a cathedral with cameras whirring and clicking all around, the defendants will be squirming before a suit is even filed. He can tap into a sense of outrage that transcends faith. Listen to Anderson work the phones for a few days and you will hear him speak the very same words repeatedly, with a fervor that sounds just like spontaneity.

No longer able to deny the scope of their sex scandal or hint that the victims are unreliable, Catholic Church officials in America have already altered their public relations strategy. It involves hiring private PR firms to help them genuflect, agreeing to participate in public discussions, and endeavoring to publicly cooperate with attorneys like Anderson.

Last October, Anderson helped to forge an unprecedented settlement in sex abuse claims against over a dozen priests at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The amount of money awarded to victims was not a matter of public record, although it probably figured to be close to a half-million. That was not the story, though. The media seized on the Catholic Church's unprecedented agreement to send all allegations of sexual abuse to an outside ecumenical review board that will include survivors, law enforcement officials, parents, and mental health professionals. For the first time, the church was admitting it needed help from the outside. The wall was crumbling.

Four months later, Anderson was named one of 12 Attorneys of the Year by the weekly newspaper Minnesota Lawyer. In years past, winners have been introduced and asked to accept their awards without making any remarks. Anderson, first on the list alphabetically, spoke for five minutes. Everyone else who followed did the same.

 

At 9:00 on a Saturday morning the banquet hall inside St. Paul's Radisson City Center is filling up with mental-health workers, legal advocates, politicians, and victims of sexual abuse. The main purpose of the day-long conference, underwritten by St. John's Abbey as part of their October settlement, is to create momentum for the Survivor Network of Minnesota (SNMN), an organization formed to lobby the legislature for a longer statute of limitations on sex abuse claims.

Anderson is bouncing around the room, embracing old friends, new clients, and prospective allies from the right and left. Some of those in attendance have been involved in the victims' rights movement for years. They stand together in clusters, joking easily and trading contact information. A dozen others, like John Doe, sit uncomfortably at one of the two dozen tables, tentatively scanning the day's itinerary, which will include personal testimony from fellow victims, breakout sessions to discuss political strategy, and a talk on "The Seven Pillars of Effective Grassroots Communication" by local activist John Kaul.

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