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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.

In 2002, the abuse victims' lawyer Jeff Anderson brought John V. Doe v. the Holy See in Portland, Ore. After many years of litigation, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Vatican did not have blanket immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act because of an exception for harm suffered at the hand of a foreign entity in the United States.

"The Vatican controls the operation of the priests," Anderson says.

The appellate court ruled that it would be possible to proceed on the theory that the priest is a direct employee of the Holy See, though many lawyers believe such an argument is difficult to prove.

Lena then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to have the departments of State and Justice weigh in on the case. On March 12, Anderson argued in Washington before Solicitor General Elena Kagan, rumored to be a top candidate for the upcoming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Anderson says that, as he walked out, Lena was waiting outside. They shook hands and then the Vatican's counsel went in to argue the Holy See's side.

"He's always been kind of an enigma," says Anderson, who called Lena a formidable, civil adversary. "In going after the bishops, I always got these white-glove firms, a gazillion lawyers, the people who represent corporate America. Here, Jeff's in the lead role."

Cases keep coming

By 2003, Pope Benedict XVI, who was still known as Joseph Ratzinger and was prefect of the Holy See's watchdog congregation, had taken a more aggressive and hands-on approach to the disciplining of alleged abusers.

But the cases kept coming. In 2005, abuse victims filed a putative class action lawsuit in Kentucky, which does not have the burden of proving that priests are employees of the Vatican. In that case, the plaintiffs are trying to show that negligent bishops, in their capacity as Vatican officials, caused injury on U.S. soil by failing to report predatory priests to civilian authorities.

Lena was able to slow the case down by arguing that documents served to the Vatican were in sloppy Latin and needed to be retranslated. Ultimately, though, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Vatican does not have total immunity and the case could continue under the theory that, assuming a tort was committed, bishops could be legally considered officials of the Vatican. That legal determination could eventually expose top Vatican prelates to accountability in U.S. courts.

The plaintiff's attorney, Bill McMurry, is also seeking to depose Benedict.

Last month, Lena filed documents with the U.S. District Court in Louisville claiming that the pope is immune from the jurisdiction of United States courts because he is the head of a sovereign state; Lena also is claiming that American bishops are not employees of the Vatican. Lena also will dispute that the 1962 church policy required clerics to keep sex abuse cases secret from civil authorities. McMurry says he thought Lena was an able lawyer, though when he first discovered that the relative legal novice would be lead counsel for the Holy See, "I thought it was a hoax."

("Ask him if he thinks it's a hoax anymore," Lena says.)

Lena is now a familiar face to the top Vatican power brokers. In 2006, Lena oversaw the deposition of William J. Levada, who succeeded Ratzinger as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as part of a bankruptcy proceeding against the archdiocese of Portland, Ore. In the deposition, Lena set the ground rules so that Cardinal Levada answered questions regarding his activities when he was archbishop of Portland, but not questions touching on his work as a Vatican official.

Since then, the clerical abuse that Benedict has lamented as "filth," and the resulting lawsuits that many prefects in Rome once considered endemic to a uniquely "litigious" American culture, is now at the doors of St. Peter's.

According to several church insiders, Lena has expressed frustration that Vatican officials in Rome have failed to get the church's point across clearly, that too many cardinals were chiming in off-message and that the church had to speak out more because the lawyers on the other side were speaking out.

"In my conversations with Jeff, it appears that he has become very instrumental as a spokesperson for the Vatican in terms of public relations, they are now leaning on Jeff for advice and counsel," McMurry says. "I do know that recently he was a bit frustrated that these documents were making their way into the press, that Jeff was really torn that he needed to stay home and write a brief when he really needed to be at the Vatican taking care of damage control."

"For me it's not damage control, it's providing counsel," Lena says. "The frustration does not come from statements of individuals who are, of course, free to speak their piece. The frustration comes from the media's over-attribution -- mis-attribution, in fact -- of individuals' views directly to the Holy See."

The Vatican seems to be getting Lena's message. Last week, the Holy See posted online a new guideline to its bishops around the world that, to some who have worked with him, sounded a lot like Lena pushing the church into the future: "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed."

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