by David Schimke,
City Pages, vol. 24, issue 1167
April 16, 2003
Who will show up in the office today? Jeff Anderson, the wisecracking ambulance chaser with a reputation for hunting priests and an advanced degree in self-promotion, the guy more than a few Catholics have secretly prayed to have consigned eternally to hell? Or Jeff Anderson, tireless champion of the bullied, born-again sober, and obsessed with exposing monsters cloaked in piety?
No one knows for sure. Not even him. Because once he takes up a cause, he will be anyone and do anything to make it his crusade. That's the reason he keeps winning, the press keeps calling, and the Catholic Church has finally had to meet him at the bargaining table. It's why his clients love him, even as he asks them to wallow publicly in their pain and takes 40 percent for the trouble.
When Jeff Anderson puts on the gloves, he'll be damned if he's not in the winner's circle come Judgment Day. And in all things that have mattered to him for 20 years, Judgment Day seems close at hand.
There are four monkeys molded out of ivory-colored plastic side by side on a six-inch piece of wood. Left to right, each otherwise identical figurine covers a different part of his anatomy: eyes, ears, mouth, and crotch. Sitting alone on a windowsill, practically hidden behind an antique kneeler, the statuette is the smallest, least remarkable ornament in Anderson's schizophrenically decorated corner office 10 stories above downtown St. Paul. It's also his favorite, a comic device to help him explain how he's managed to make tens of millions of dollars suing the Catholic Church.
"It's a culture that operates in complete secrecy. They are not accountable to anyone outside for anything--to any government, agency, or individual," Anderson exclaims in a half-shout. (He often talks as though he's addressing the whole world on a speakerphone.) "Within that culture, they say that men are superior and priests are celibate. They suppress sexuality. Sexuality can't be suppressed. It creeps out. And those most accessible when it does are boys, nuns, and housekeepers--in that order. It's a matter of opportunity and access."
Anderson is pacing as he orates, gesturing with open hands, his 5'4" frame tense and shaking. All that's missing is a jury box. "They see no evil. They hear no evil. They speak no evil." On cue, he strides purposefully toward the window to grab Exhibit A. "And they have... no... genitals."
The 55-year-old attorney--gray hair slicked back brown, face weathered red from a family weekend skiing at Steamboat Springs--flashes a mischievous, perfectly polished smile and goes to answer his desk phone, which seems to ring every 30 seconds. It's a lawyer in California who, like dozens of civil attorneys from around the country, is collaborating with Anderson on a series of past, present, and future claims against the Catholic Church. "We got a new law passed in California that opens up the statute of limitations for all victims of sexual abuse. It's something we've been trying to do in several states for years," Anderson says after hanging up the phone. "And I'm not waiting for it to click in. I'm suing the shit out of them everywhere: in Sacramento, in Santa Clara, in Santa Rosa, in San Francisco, in Oakland, in L.A., and everyplace else."
Anderson's cell phone starts to chirp. His desktop computer simultaneously sounds an alarm as an associate jogs through the door in search of a complaint. He grabs the cell from the credenza behind his desk. It's a reporter from a paper in Milwaukee, where Anderson is currently laboring to prevail in a series of groundbreaking lawsuits. "The courts say you can't sue the church in Wisconsin, because it's a violation of the free expression of religion," he booms. "It's a sham and a shame. I'm ashamed to practice law in that state."
He checks e-mail while he talks, then begins to rummage through a mountain of legal pads, court documents, and press releases to find the lost brief. "Ever since the Boston Globe story broke, I've been a man in chaos in search of frenzy," he says proudly. "I'm managing 150 cases right now. I could probably manage another 150."
The morning, which started for Anderson at 6:00 a.m., is a litigious blur. There are calls from prospective clients, opposing counsel, and media from LA to London. There are quick-hit strategy sessions with his five on-site associates about cases in Washington, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and New York. A memo is prepared for a Catholic Church in Latin America, where an abusive priest from the upper Midwest was quietly dispatched to work with the poor. The itinerary for a weekend conference in Chicago is solidified, so Anderson can strategize with 30 other attorneys in his field on how best to outflank the Vatican in the "court of public opinion." By the time Anderson takes a break to eat a cup of vanilla yogurt for lunch, it is 2:00 p.m. and his secretary is in the doorway, reminding him that it's time to do an "intake" session with a prospective client--a man who has driven 300 miles to finally tell a secret he's been keeping for over 30 years.
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.'"
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.
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.
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."
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.
"Many people are here for the first time," Anderson says in his opening remarks. "I know you're quite nervous, and it's a little scary and difficult. But you're not alone. We all share a desire to protect others from what we, or a family member, or a loved one have experienced."
He then introduces former state representative John Tuma, who carried a bill to protect children and vulnerable adults through the Minnesota House last year. Now he's working as a lobbyist and will spend time pushing a bill designed to extend the statute of limitations for Minnesota minors so they can sue for up to 30 years after they turn 18. Currently, if a person was abused before they came of age, they must sue by the time they are 24. "It would be one of the longest statutes, both civil and criminal," Tuma says later. "So there will be opposition from school districts, churches, and counseling organizations. But we are building broad support in both houses, and the more people that come forward to tell their stories, the better chance we have."
It's this sort of litigious legislation that most terrifies the Catholic Church, which claims to already be in a fiscal crisis because of the current avalanche of civil suits. Officials from the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, saying they have to work with Anderson and other members of SNMN, did not want to comment on the effort. But Joe Maher, founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii (for the good of the priesthood), insists that opening the door wider for attorneys like Anderson will only result in an increasingly unmanageable caseload for both sides.
Maher thinks it's naive for anyone to believe that civil attorneys who crave such a policy shift aren't just salivating at the bottom line. "Civil attorneys like Jeff Anderson have a responsibility to look at each individual and make a determination, an authentic determination--to find out whether or not an accusation has merit before they file a suit," he says. "And it's already impossible to do that. They meet with someone for a few minutes, lump allegations together, throw lawsuits at the wall, and see what sticks. In the meantime, men's lives are being ruined. They don't care. And if they say they know that everyone they have targeted is guilty, they're lying to you or to themselves.
"When attorneys go to the media with this stuff now, everyone they sue is guilty until proven innocent, and that's neither just nor fair."
Tuma scoffs at such criticisms. The Catholic Church has brought the crisis on itself, he says, and brawlers like Anderson have every right to go after it, in the courtroom and on the six o'clock news.
To promote today's event, Anderson has invited the local media to a lunchtime press conference and photo op. In preparation, conference organizers bought dozens of teddy bears and piled them in front of a makeshift podium. Shortly before noon, those who dare are asked to come forward, briefly tell their story, and grab a teddy bear to show solidarity. (Later, everyone will be encouraged to take their stuffed animal to the state capitol, to use as a calling card with their local representatives.) "What do we have?" Anderson says as he surveys the crowd. "We have the power of the truth. What do they have? Money."
An hour later, people are still coming forward. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg," a former nun testifies. There isn't a dry eye in the room.
Suddenly Doe, who has been staring at the table in front of him for nearly an hour, rises and walks slowly to the podium. Wiping his eyes with a shredded Kleenex, he speaks the words that until today he'd only uttered behind closed doors: "I'm a victim and a survivor."
Anderson swells with pride.
"I just got wrapped up in things, I guess," Doe tells me later. "I felt a part of it for once. And I'll tell you something: If it wouldn't have been for Jeff, I wouldn't have gone up there. But I really think this means something to him. I just pray he doesn't let me down. I don't know if I could take that."
A week after the conference, Anderson is back in his office working the phones, preaching the word, riding a high. "Did you see that?" he asks rhetorically. "[Doe] just got up there and said, I'm not going to take this shit anymore. I'm telling you, man, I've seen it before. That guy's going to start his own support group. He'll be giving speeches in two months."
As he's talking, the phone rings; it's a fellow attorney, working with Anderson on a case involving a number of priests from an embattled diocese that hopes to settle things in mediation. However, the defendants' attorney is reluctant to bring any lay people to the table. He believes the church should be allowed to clean its own house. Anderson, who is losing his patience, begins to pace the room, shouting into the speakerphone, working up a sweat.
"Here's what you can tell them," he says. "I'm going to be like Gandhi today. But it's a blue light special, man. And when the time runs out, I'm going back to being Attila the Hun."