Attorney on a crusade

By KIM ODE, Star Tribune

April 28, 2010

Jeff Anderson grabbed a thick book from the table in his law office, fanning the pages as a French journalist filmed the action. "These are official Catholic directories," he said. "With these, I can find any U.S. priest, and I've got resources for foreign countries, as well." Two pieces of art, each depicting Don Quixote, leaned against the wall behind him, bookending the scene.

For years, Anderson has been vilified for his zeal in pursuing priests accused of sexually molesting children. Critics say he disrupts church protocol, spurns the promise of redemption through confession and makes a fortune from sordid lawsuits. Yet Anderson also has fervent supporters who praise the Lord that he takes on the Catholic church. The work has led Anderson to a conclusion he's long regarded as inevitable: "All roads lead to Rome."

On Thursday, Anderson filed a federal lawsuit accusing Pope Benedict and senior Vatican officials of failing to defrock a Wisconsin priest despite allegations that he molested at least 200 deaf children over 25 years.

In a statement, the Vatican characterized Anderson's actions as a publicity stunt, saying that most of the complaint is without merit "and rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts."

Lately, Anderson's days have included interviews by journalists from Spain and Italy, Portugal and Germany. "This is very big news in Europe," said the French reporter, who quickly learned not to refer to victims. "We call them survivors," Anderson said.

It's been more than 20 years ago since Anderson filed a lawsuit on behalf of a St. Paul Park man who'd been sexually abused by a priest. The case proved an unexpected linchpin to a floodgate. Thousands of other adults haunted by childhood terrors came forward across the United States. Now Anderson is on the world stage, possessing documents he says implicate Pope Benedict for mishandling cases of clergy sexual abuse when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

"It all leads to the pope," Anderson said. "Deposing him sounds bombastic, but it isn't. He needs to be held responsible for the torture and mutilation of children's souls worldwide."

• • •

The targets of Anderson's lawsuits serve many faiths, but most are Catholic priests. Joe Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit group that provides spiritual, legal and financial support to accused priests, calls Anderson "the guru of lawsuits against the Catholic church since the early '80s."

"He has kind of taken this on as his personal mission," Maher said. "It makes great headlines for Jeff to say something like that, but it's unreasonable to hold the pope accountable for someone else's actions."

Maher offered this perspective: More than 400,000 priests minister to 1.1 billion Catholics around the world. "Hundreds of thousands of others have come and gone in the last 50 years," he said. Worldwide, more than 5,000 priests have been removed because of sexual assault allegations. While many are justly accused -- "Bad things happen" -- Maher says it's difficult to know how many left because they could not figure out how to prove they were innocent.

"Once the lawsuits are paid, everyone assumes the priests are guilty," he said. "If you think it's tough proving an allegation from 30 years back, try disproving it."

The pope is the focus of several allegations worldwide that he failed to take strong action in cases of clergy sexual abuse. The allegations are rooted in the 24 years that, while Cardinal Ratzinger, he led the church's disciplinary arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). One of Anderson's cases concerns the Rev. Lawrence Murphy. The Wisconsin priest was accused of molesting some 200 boys at a school for deaf students. The documents, which Anderson shared with the New York Times, show the CDF halted a church trial against Murphy, who died not long after.

"I completely understand people when it comes to children who have been molested, whether by priests or family members," Maher said. "These cases happened not under the current Holy Father and not under current bishops, but they're put in the position of having to rectify what has happened and still minister to the people of God and lead them into heaven."

Over the years, Anderson has been invited to burn in hell via e-mail, letters, faxes and phone calls. The balance tilts in favor of supporters, he said, but the volume ebbs and flows with the headlines. Now, with Pope Benedict in his sights, negative reaction is on an uptick.

• • •

"It looks like a church in here, doesn't it?" Anderson said, walking up the central staircase of Jeff Anderson & Associates in St. Paul's Lowertown. Catholic confessionals, dark and deeply carved, line a hallway. A Buddhist shrine gleams gold and crimson. He says it's coincidence that his legal work and artistic tastes intersect. "I just like this stuff."

Halfway up the stairs, he stops to remind the receptionist to order jerseys for the firm's upcoming softball season. Anderson, 62, calls to mind a Scandinavian Jack LaLanne, a disciple of fitness with the compact physique that comes from working out once, and sometimes twice, a day. Or, as he says, "I exorcise my demons by exercising." He pays for his employees' memberships in health clubs because he needs them to be healthy enough to be up to the task of being his employee. Each office is within shouting distance of his own. Saves time, he says.

Yet Anderson says he's also on a spiritual journey, calling it "jagged and alive and real and the foundation for everything I do." He was raised Lutheran in Edina, eventually figuring out that "we went to church to be seen in church." Marrying at 18, he converted to Catholicism for his wife's sake, but says now that he didn't really embrace that faith, or any faith. "I believed that no one really knew."

Anderson didn't embrace much those days, except perhaps alcohol, becoming a partying student at the University of Minnesota. He protested the war and he marched for civil rights. Yet he had few goals. He graduated to work briefly in an ad agency, then sold shoes. Even after beginning night classes at William Mitchell College of Law, he wasn't sure what he was aiming for until he successfully defended a classic underdog case: a homeless man charged with indecent exposure after urinating in public.

The guy who likes to describe himself as "a man in chaos in search of frenzy" had found his motivation: He could change people's lives. He began representing people in cases involving civil rights and police brutality. Yet he did it without changing his own path down alcoholism's gradual slope; that didn't catch up to him until years later.

• • •

Anderson's days begin at 4 a.m. He has a huge breakfast, "all organic," then works out. Lunch is a Zone nutrition bar. Supper is lean and healthy, prepared by his wife, whom he describes as wise, strong, patient -- and intensely private. His six kids are mostly grown; the youngest, twin sons, are high school seniors. Aside from mentioning that Friday nights are sacred family dinner and rental movie night, that's as much as he'll share about his home.

If asked, however, he will talk briefly about the almost unbelievably ironic incidence of a daughter being molested as a child. The perpetrator was a therapist she'd seen when Anderson and his first wife were divorcing. While some accounts describe the offender as a priest, he was not -- he was a therapist who had once been a Catholic priest. Anderson's daughter was an adult when she told him, and the therapist was convicted, "but it brought a new awareness to me of the pain families suffer," he said.

Each resurgence of charges can cause a resurgence of old fears. "My daughter is suffering now because of what she's reading, as are thousands of children," he said. "When they were kids, they were terrified because they were told they were going to hell, and they believed that."

Benita Kirschbaum was 12 years old when a young priest in Dubuque, Iowa, began sexually molesting her, assaults that continued for years. Her dad had died when she was 10, and the family saw the priest as a father figure. "When I asked for help from the bishop, they said, 'How can you ruin one of our priests?'" she said.

She met Anderson in 1992 at a conference of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. A year earlier, she'd inexplicably begun crying at a family picnic, blurting, "I haven't been happy since I was 10." At the time, she was 57.

Kirschbaum, now 76, is a retired teacher who lives in Minneapolis. In 1993 she signed a confidentiality agreement with the Archdiocese of Dubuque after beginning legal proceedings against the priest. In 2002, she joined a class action suit Anderson brought against several Midwest dioceses and archdioceses to get those agreements lifted. The priest in question has died, "so nothing ever happened."

"Jeff is my Don Quixote," she said. "He marched in hell for me. He marched against the Catholic Church for me. To have the pope's protectors say it's petty gossip ... ." Her voice trailed off. "It's easy to fall back into being scared now, but you know, I gotta not be scared."

• • •

Anderson had his own night of fright when, on his 50th birthday, he got drunk, more than usual. He'd been a careful drinker for years, never getting arrested, believing he never compromised a client, yet never stopping. For some reason, he knew it was time to sober up.

He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and he still does. He only attends church for ceremonies (and those only for his wife's sake), but recovered a deep belief in God. "You know how AA is all about turning will and care over to a higher power?" he asked. "Well, I can't define who she is or what she wants or what she looks like. At base, I do not know. But I believe.

"I think it's cool that people can find that in church," he said, then shrugged and flashed his brilliant smile. "I find it everywhere."

Anderson has long believed that all roads lead to Rome. He just never expected to get the map.

One day a few months ago, Michael Finnegan, a young lawyer in the firm, appeared at his office door. Finnegan had been poring through documents the firm had obtained from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee when he found correspondence that connected the dots between disciplinary foot-dragging and the man who now was pope. Anderson recalled responding with an expression both sacred and scatalogical.

"This was a stunner," he said. "We've always known the Vatican knew about these cases because the Vatican controls everything, but we've never gotten the documents that show that." Someone, he suspects, made a grave mistake in handing over the papers too quickly.

"There's a code, a culture, a practice and a protocol that's been intact not for years, or for a decade, but for centuries. We try to work to get over that wall and, every once in a while, there's a fissure that lets light sneak through."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185