Jeffrey Lena: California lawyer is voice of Vatican, Pope Benedict in U.S. court

Pope Benedict met with a group of clerical sex-abuse victims and told them with tears in his eyes that the Catholic Church would seek justice for pedophile priests and implement "effective measures" to protect young people from abuse.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

This is a bad time for Jeffrey Lena to have quit caffeine.

In Kentucky, the 51-year-old attorney is defending Pope Benedict XVI from a deposition motion in a case involving child abuse by clergy. In a suit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Lena is arguing that the Vatican cannot be tried for transferring a predatory priest from Ireland to Oregon. In Mississippi, he is defending the Vatican against accusations that it participated in a money-laundering scheme. In New York, Lena is defending the Holy See in a commercial-licensing dispute about the use of images belonging to the Vatican Museums.

Wherever it is in the United States that the Vatican stands accused, Lena is there to protect it.

"I am counsel for the Holy See," Lena said.

As an international clerical sex abuse scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church and raised questions about the meaning of sin and crime, penance and punishment, church and state, Lena, a sole practitioner who works out of a small office in Northern California where his wife has kept the books, has taken the lead in defending the Vatican in the courts of law and public opinion. That means that the mild-mannered and reclusive comparative law specialist is swamped. And he looks it.

Puffy bags hung under Lena's brown eyes on Wednesday morning as he ordered an herbal pomegranate tea at a Washington coffee shop. With waves of salt-and-pepper hair, a workman's build, unclipped fingernails and an outfit of plaid flannel shirt, bluejeans and black shoes, Lena doesn't look the part of advocate for the supreme pontiff of the universal church, prince of the apostles and vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth.

The genesis of Lena's employment with the Vatican is an enduring church mystery upon which he refuses to shed any light.

"I've never wished to be in the public eye," says Lena, who once spent three hours hiding out in an empty Austin courtroom to avoid photographers. "And this is like suddenly crossing a divide from a private to public figure, and I wish to retain my privacy."

Some of Lena's former opponents say he is in way over his head and does not possess the legal heft to command such complex and historic cases.

Victims' groups say Lena's deft navigation of legal loopholes is anathema to an institution built on the revelation of truth. But Vatican supporters say he is effective, and that his immunity defense has broader applications for international law beyond the current scandal. What is clear is that through his newly voluble response to media inquiries about the Vatican's actions, the down-to-earth lawyer has emerged as the pope's de facto spokesman.

Shy, cerebral, athletic

Lena lives with his wife and son in a Berkeley Hills home that had no television until this past Christmas. His family has owned the property since the 1960s. His grandfather, Lino Lena, emigrated from Italy; his father, Leland, a public-school teacher, participated in the invasion of the Philippines as a Coast Guardsman.

Raised Catholic, Lena and his two younger siblings accompanied his parents to Sunday Mass and hunted for Easter eggs. Lena was a shy, "cerebral" and "athletic" young man, according to his brother Justin, now living in South Dakota. He lettered in tennis and took Latin lessons.

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