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Jeff Anderson, jousting with the Vatican from a small law office in St. Paul

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; C01

The Vatican's chief American pursuer once flunked out of law school and sold shoes for a living. A father at 19, an alcoholic until nearly 50, he got his start in the law by representing indigent clients. He is now a fitness fanatic who lights his ornate office here with Tiffany reproductions and drives a Lexus.

He gets his balance from Zen Buddhism, his persistence from the reporters who felled Richard Nixon and his inspiration from the sexually abused clients who trust him to make the Roman Catholic Church pay for the sins of its fathers.

Jeff Anderson, who draws headlines and epithets and rarely sleeps more than four hours a night, is using his manic energy to challenge one of the most powerful and secretive institutions in the world, a 2,000-year-old church with hundreds of millions of devoted followers.

"All the roads lead to Rome," Anderson, 62, said during a recent 20-hour day that included a round trip to Chicago on a chartered jet to meet a man abused by a priest. "What we're doing is getting us closer every single day."

Closer, he thinks, to learning how the Vatican responded to internal reports concerning sexual predators. And closer, he hopes, to forcing Pope Benedict XVI to agree that Roman prelates were slow to address abuses and must now work to prevent a repeat.

"We're chasing them. We're taking bites out of their ass," Anderson said aboard the flight from Chicago, vowing a new lawsuit against the Vatican. "They are spinning this thing in a way that is untruthful. And the truth has to be known."

Anderson, who first investigated an abusive priest in Minnesota in 1983, is drawing international attention from the release of documents suggesting that the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, failed to move against American priests who molested children.

One was the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, a convicted child molester in Oakland, Calif. Another was the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who may have molested as many as 200 deaf children before his death in 1998.

The Vatican has also been answering questions about Benedict's actions when he was archbishop of Munich and, later, the leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which processed thousands of abuse cases.

'Gossip'

Vatican officials say Murphy's case was properly handled. They point to Benedict's condemnation of sexual abuse and his meetings with victims. A statement last week by the head of Vatican Radio suggested the church would work with civil courts. And on Sunday the pope met with sexual abuse victims in Malta, telling them that the church would do everything in its power to bring to justice those responsible for abuse, according to a Vatican statement.

Other comments have been less conciliatory. On Good Friday, the pope's personal preacher likened criticism of the church's handling of abuse cases to "collective violence" against Jews, who suffered and died by the millions during World War II.

At Easter Mass, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a senior Vatican prelate, dismissed the allegations against the church and Benedict as "petty gossip."

Paradoxically, Anderson considered the response good news.

"When you're a fugitive from the truth, which I think they are, what you do is run or attack," Anderson says. "They didn't really deal with the facts. It tells you that they are clueless and that we're getting to them."

When the Murphy documents surfaced, Anderson and his young colleague Mike Finnegan were thrilled. Anderson let loose with an expletive and crowed, "We've got 'em!"

Anderson soon issued an all-points bulletin for documents that would confirm his suspicion that the Vatican helped squelch investigations and quietly transferred abusive priests.

'Not going to get anything'

Over the years, Anderson has earned millions from his lawsuits against the church and other institutions, collecting 25 to 40 percent of each payout. He estimated in 2002 that his victories had totaled $60 million, but refuses to update the figure.

He says his riches give him the freedom and power to pursue the cases he cares about and live the life he chooses. His office in a former St. Paul bank building employs five attorneys. The chartered jet was a first -- he calls the decision "morally ambiguous" and "so Republican," but says it saved time.

Anderson has come a long way since he struggled to pay the $50 monthly rent for the apartment he shared with his first wife and oldest son.

"I went to law school because I was in the middle of a peace movement and a civil rights movement, and I felt powerless in the street," Anderson recalls. "I flunked and got kicked out. I was at the bottom of my class. I was afraid. I was lost. I was rudderless."

After finding law school dry and remote, Anderson found meaning in the public defender's office and a legal clinic at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul where he eventually earned his law degree. Calling himself "cause-oriented," then and now, he represented indigent suspects for seven years.

"He was always committed to the less fortunate, the underdog kind of thing," says Mike Finnegan, a longtime friend and former public defender whose son and namesake is Anderson's law partner. "At one point, Jeff had a record in our office of 15 straight acquittals in jury trials. It's unheard of. He's persuasive in front of a jury or in front of a camera."

The elder Finnegan believes Anderson's share of the winnings is deserved.

"Back when Jeff started in the '80s, he was footing the bill. People were saying, 'The Catholic Church, you're not going to get anything from them,'" says Finnegan, a lifelong Catholic. "If it wasn't for him, the victims wouldn't be where they are. Hopefully with this, the Catholic Church will be able to change and steady itself."

In 1983, Anderson's first church case came through the door in the person of a young man who said he had been molested by a priest. A bishop had given him $2,000, but the man and his family were not satisfied.

Anderson started digging and soon concluded that members of two Minnesota dioceses were lying. Less than a decade after Watergate, he thought of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and said to himself that he was "in the middle of a [expletive] cover-up."

'Tipping point'

Anderson took depositions and found an anonymous source, his own Deep Throat. The church offered $1 million to settle in return for silence. His client persisted and the investigation grew.

"That was a tipping point in my personal journey," Anderson says, his voice breaking and tears flowing. "All of a sudden, the world changed and I began hot pursuit. I filed lawsuit after lawsuit and I haven't slowed down."

Anderson says he has filed more than 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic Church, plus 2,000 to 3,000 against other individuals and entities, including other denominations. He estimates that 75 percent yield no money for himself or his clients, often due to a statute of limitations.

Early in his career, Anderson was called the "antichrist." One critic labeled him a "scum maggot." To another, he was a "bigoted shyster lawyer."

After he released the Murphy documents, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights branded him "a radical lawyer who has made millions suing the Church" and supporting efforts to "weaken its moral authority."

"I accept that I have no control over what people think, and I don't try," Anderson says. Lawsuits and news conferences, he says, allow his clients "to feel a sense of recovery of power" and reveal truths "that would otherwise not have been known." He believes his efforts "make it a little safer -- or a lot safer -- for other kids."

Anderson considers his pursuit spiritual: "I'm not sure I want to say this, but it's the answer: It's the pursuit of virtue."

Raised a Lutheran, he long doubted God's existence but now has "a great deal of interest in Zen Buddhism," although he does not count himself an adherent.

"Every day, I practice it as much as I can. I believe Christ was a student of Buddha," he says, quickly adding, "I don't know that. I find the same things running through every religion."

One day, he would like to question Benedict under oath, an unlikely possibility. Vatican attorneys already are disputing U.S. jurisdiction in existing cases.

"As the pope, he's the guy," Anderson says. "He's just a man who is occupying an office. He's responsible for his own actions."

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