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He inspires fear in the church, hope for victims

Own experiences help drive a St. Paul lawyer in his high-profile quest to expose clergy abuse

Jan. 28, 2007 Attorney Jeff Anderson has been suing churches and clergy for 23 years.
Pioneer Press

Attorney Jeff Anderson has been suing churches and clergy for 23 years.

Under glaring lights, television cameras focus on Jeff Anderson. The St. Paul lawyer has just jetted to Los Angeles to publicly accuse the Catholic Church of failing to protect children from a predator priest.

As he stands at a podium at the Omni Hotel in his pressed taupe suit, Anderson raises a notebook-size photo of the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar above his head.

"We know now that this man, with the complicity and the participation of two cardinals, has shattered the lives of over 100 youths," Anderson says to the crowd of reporters. He accuses the church of shuttling Aguilar from California to Mexico, hiding him from prosecution. It is a charge the cardinals and churches in Los Angeles and Mexico will later deny.

Before Anderson leaves the stage, he turns to his client Joaquin Mendez, puts a hand on his shoulder and calls him a "courageous survivor." The cameras zoom in.

Anderson, 59, understands drama. And he knows how to get the public's attention.

He's a polished fighter who won't give up and who, as a result, has changed the church and the world. He brought priest pedophilia out into the open. And he has become increasingly successful at targeting the leaders who tried to hide it. That makes Anderson a man the church should either fear, or thank.

The son of a furniture salesman who grew up Lutheran in Edina, Anderson has built his law firm into one of the nation's leading specialists in clergy molestation cases. He has sued nearly every denomination, winning "multimillions." The bulk of his cases, about two-thirds, have targeted the Roman Catholic Church.

How people view him, Anderson says, isn't as important as how they treat his clients. But through 24 years of waging an all-out war against the Catholic Church, he has come to learn public perception and media coverage are as crucial to his cause as legal filings and depositions.

Yet the fighter the cameras caught during that Nov. 16 news conference is only part of Anderson.

On the same trip, Anderson and two of his attorneys sat for a meeting in the hotel's Presidential Suite with supposed victims of clergy abuse. It starts with handshakes and hugs. It turns into an Oprah-like support group that lasts into the night.

The mother of three grown sons dabs tears from her eyes and tells Anderson her boys were abused by the family's trusted minister. They aren't willing or able to come forward.

Anderson leans in to hug her and thanks her for coming. He then does something that he rarely does in public. He talks about learning that his own daughter was abused by a priest. He then vows to help the mother, legally or otherwise.

'You are the scum maggot of this country," penned the anonymous letter writer to Anderson.

"My God lawyers have a horrible reputation for getting rich on human misery, but you carry the profession from the swamps to the cesspool," wrote another.

The notes hang like badges of honor on the paneled walls of Anderson & Associates, alongside family photos and images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. In a foyer hangs a dark, brooding painting titled "Priest Cape," showing what appears to be a priest draped in darkness and shadow.

When you put yourself in front of the cameras and take on sacred institutions, it often turns personal. There are few who are as vilified or admired as Anderson.

"Jeff Anderson has probably done more to help the Catholic Church … than anyone I can think of, by forcing the church to be accountable and honest," said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who has had his own run-ins with the church. Doyle praises Anderson's legal work, calling it precedent setting.

What drives Anderson is a chance to help victims who otherwise would have been left to suffer, his supporters say. Anderson likens his work to a 21st-century Reformation: citizens taking on the church hierarchy to demand change.

"He has saved a lot of lives," said Eric Barragan, the Mexico director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Not by pulling them out of a burning building, or taking them out of a burning car, but hopefully because they won't commit suicide, parents won't be splitting up and communities won't be torn apart."

But ripping apart communities is exactly what Anderson is doing, detractors say. Congregations and dioceses are going bankrupt. The loyalties of the faithful are questioned. And why? For money, critics say.

"Jeff Anderson is not interested in reforming the church, but in the huge cash settlements he will receive," said Joe Maher, founder of the Detroit-based Opus Bono Sacerdotii (which means "work for the good of the priesthood"), an organization that gives legal and financial support to clergy accused of abuse.

Maher uses words like "unscrupulous" to describe lawyers such as Anderson who take on the church. They "prey upon people with emotional disorders or unbalanced lives" with promises of huge payoffs, he said.

"Jeff Anderson has developed a money-making machine."

Several attorneys who have faced Anderson did not return phone calls requesting comment, including Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Previously, Chopko said conflicts should be resolved between the church and supposed victims, and not by courtroom lawyers.

Whether they think he is an angel or the devil, most agree Anderson has been effective.

Church leaders and their attorneys have come to fear Anderson, because he is tenacious, wins cases and collects millions, said Jason Berry, author of several books on priests and pedophilia, including "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

"He has had a major impact and been a driving force," Berry said. "There is now a lot of momentum behind him that wasn't there five years ago.

"He waged an uphill battle and has prevailed."

Anderson had a "happy and traditional" Beaver Cleaver suburban childhood. His father sold furniture at Dayton's while his mother managed their Edina household.

"I get my tenacity from my mom and dad," Anderson said. "My mom is strong and my dad was a real humanitarian. He never said or did anything unkind. He was as gentle of a man as I have ever known."

Anderson came of age during the '60s, embracing the flourishing civil rights and peace movements of the times. And he immersed himself in his studies, including politics and philosophy.

When he was 18, he converted to Catholicism to appease his first wife. While he respected the Catholic faithful and the church's long history of promoting social justice, education and health care, he did not really subscribe to church doctrine.

Looking back, Anderson thinks he was an agnostic then. He sought enlightenment from books, booze and chemicals as a student at the University of Minnesota.

After graduating, Anderson took a job with an advertising agency, then as a shoe buyer, both considered good jobs, Anderson said.

"It was superficial. It was nonsense. There was a war going on (in Vietnam). And the civil rights movement here. … I needed to find meaning in my work. To be authentic."

Anderson enrolled in night classes at William Mitchell College of Law. It wasn't until his third year that a case ignited his legal passion. He defended a homeless man who had been charged with indecent exposure for urinating in public. The judge dismissed the case.

"I could make a difference," he said. "It was transformational."

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice RosalieWahl, a former William Mitchell law professor, remembers Anderson as a bright young law student.

"The thing that most impressed me then was he came alive when he handled a real case," said Wahl, who taught Anderson criminal justice.

Decades later, she sees a graying, experienced attorney who has retained his enthusiasm and vigor. He is able to keep focused through the praise and shake off the criticism.

"He's no saint," Wahl said. "But he really cares about people. It's not about the money."

Despite decades of success, Anderson continued to battle the vices he picked up in college. Alcohol never got him into trouble — legally or professionally, he said. But it was a dark part of his life. It would consume him at night. It would tire him during the day.

But he made a point to get to work on time, to never have alcohol on his breath. And to not let alcohol affect how he approached his cases. He likens it today to living a "double life."

Then he got drunk on his 50th birthday. Really drunk. There was no arrest, no DWI, no ultimatum from his family to sober up — just a realization he needed to stop.

"It was the last straw. I called a friend. I said it was time," Anderson said. With the pal's help, Anderson began treatment. He's been sober for nearly 10 years.

"I lived a lie for so many years. My recovery is a second chance at life," he said.

Coming clean and getting sober humbled him and changed his spiritual view, but not his tenacity.

"I no longer am agnostic," Anderson said. "Reflection and prayer are part of my life. My spiritual life is vibrant. And it inspires me. It is part of everything I do."

Anderson talks openly about his two marriages, his six children, his former devotion to the bottle and his dedication to his legal cause, but he prefers to focus on the latter.

It was after eight years of practicing run-of-the mill law that he "stumbled upon" the case that would push his career in a new direction.

A friend had told Anderson about the case of Greg Riedle, who had been convicted of molesting a girl. The St. Paul Park man was saying he was only doing what he learned from his parish priest, the Rev. Thomas Paul Adamson. Anderson took his issue to leaders with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. While the criminal statute of limitations had passed — so Adamson was never tried — a civil lawsuit could still be filed.

The church offered a $1 million-plus settlement in 1984, if Riedle kept quiet.

"I had an anxiety attack. I felt paralyzed," Anderson said. "They wanted confidentiality, which would have made me as bad as them. But I had an obligation to take it to Greg."

Riedle turned down the offer and sued. The case made headlines. That is when, Anderson said, "the floodgates opened and I realized how enormous it was."

Anderson is constantly in motion.

He works out at least once a day, often twice. He leaves his Stillwater home and arrives at his downtown St. Paul office hours before most have gotten out of bed. His job takes him to several cities across the country each week. And his phones are constantly ringing. Conversations sway between gut-wrenching emotion with those who say they were abused, to downright battles when he talks to an accused cleric. He makes a point of calling each of the accused.

"They usually don't answer," Anderson said. "But if they don't, they'll see it on their caller ID, or get my message. And they'll know I am on to them."

Part of why Anderson is so dogged is his multifaceted understanding of priest abuse.

It was the mid-1990s, about 10 years into his legal crusade, that Anderson learned one of his own daughters had been abused by a priest who was counseling the girl.

"It just gave me another layer of understanding," Anderson said. "To know this, feel this and blame myself … I understand it on a lot of different levels.

"I live it, feel it, and am close to it."

The priest was charged and convicted.

Eventually in the Adamson case, dozens of supposed victims came forward and filed lawsuits against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona. In 1990, the victims were awarded $3.5 million, including, for the first time, punitive damages.

In the years that followed, Anderson said he made nothing some years and millions others. His law firm, on the 10th floor of the irst National Bank Building, has grown to about 10 attorneys. It has represented more than 2,000 clients in clergy abuse cases, and is in the midst of an unprecedented legal maneuver: Lawsuits against each Catholic diocese in the country on behalf of a Hudson, Wis., couple whose son, mortician Dan O'Connell, was murdered in 2002, authorities say, by a predator priest.

"Few people in this country understand or have been so active in taking the steps to bring child molestation to an end," said Tom O'Connell Jr. while explaining why his family turned to Anderson. They are seeking the names of all the priests who have been accused of abuse so the public can be made aware. That Anderson was willing to go after the names, and not the money, impressed the O'Connells.

Long after the cases are over, Anderson continues to track his former targets. Twenty-four years after learning about Adamson, Anderson heard last month that the retired priest was living across from a school in Altoona, Wis.

Anderson contacted police. And then he notified a victims group. The group spread Adamson's photograph among his neighbors.

"Today in some ways is no different than that first day," Anderson said. "That case is over, but the struggle continues. This is an insular culture that has operated in secrecy and above the law for 2,000 years. This is a problem that has been documented to the fourth century," he said. "Who am I to think I can make a difference? Originally, it may have been grandiosity, but now it is a mission, a search for truth and hope."

Today, Anderson has enough wealth for him and his family to live well, for him to fund the advocacy groups he supports and to continue to do battle in court.

"I've made enough money to match them," Anderson said. "They can't out-resource me anymore. I can pursue them without limitation."

"This is an insular culture that has operated in secrecy and above the law for 2,000 years. This is a problem that has been documented to the fourth century. Who am I to think I can make a difference? Originally, it may have been grandiosity, but now it is a mission, a search for truth and hope." St. Paul lawyer Jeff Anderson, who works to expose abuse by the clergy.

Kevin Harter can be reached at kharter@pioneerpress.com or 800-950-9080, ext. 2149.



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