Warriors on the Front Lines
Warriors on the Front Lines
A small band of plaintiffs lawyers with a common target: priests who prey
By Jim Oliphant
Jeffrey Anderson wants to take the sexual abuse cases rocking the Roman Catholic Church where no man has taken them before.
"We're going to Rome, baby!" he roars into a phone in his St. Paul law office.
When it comes to the molestation scandal that has erupted in dioceses nationwide, Anderson has always been state of the art. He has been pursuing sex abuse cases against priests, churches, and other religious institutions since the 1980s. Earlier this month, he did what he says he never had the courage to do in hundreds of previous cases. He sued the Vatican itself.
"I've known for a long time that part of the problem originates in Rome," Anderson says. "Rome requires the priests to keep their secret files. Rome prevented bishops from removing these pedophile priests."
And he's still turning the heat up. On April 18, Anderson filed a racketeering suit against four Missouri dioceses, accusing church officials of covering up sexual abuse. Suits against the church using the federal RICO statute are a new phenomenon of the current church sex scandal.
"It is a major legal offensive," Anderson says.
Anderson, however, has never had much trouble getting the Roman Catholic Church's attention. He is the only lawyer ever to get punitive damages awards against the church, and he's done it three times. Anderson estimates he has obtained $60 million in settlements. It has helped to pay for the paintings and antiques that adorn his office, art that has been called gothic and even Catholic. (He just labels it "whimsical.")
"I don't see myself as a crusader," he says. "I see myself as a partner with courageous survivors."
Not everyone views Anderson so generously.
"They [plaintiffs lawyers] are fanning these flames," says Minneapolis defense lawyer Andrew Eisenzimmer, who, as someone who defends religious institutions, has battled Anderson on numerous occasions. "That's not to downplay the seriousness of this. But a lot of people are making it worse than it really is.
"There is a nonexistent chance of his succeeding on any of these claims," he says.
For years, Anderson's critics have countered that he's made himself rich pushing his ever-expansive practice of suing churches.
"My life and passion comes as a result of social change," the 54-year-old Anderson says, adding, "If it's going to make it a safer church or a safer place, if they have to be hit in the pocketbook to make it happen, then why not?"
A Rush of Claims
Anderson is one of a wave of lawyers who were taking on the U.S. Catholic Church over clergy sexual abuse in dioceses across the country long before the recent disclosures in Boston brought new scrutiny to how the church handles pedophile priests.
Boston, of course, has become the epicenter of a scandal that has brought fresh revelations on almost a daily basis. Calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law have grown steadily louder over the diocese's sheltering of priests like John Geoghan with long histories of sexual abuse.
And Jeffrey Newman's phone keeps ringing. "It has fractured the fabric of this whole community," says the Boston lawyer of the scandal.
Newman and two other lawyers have taken on the bulk of new clients claiming to have been victims of Catholic clergy in the region. He says he now has 110 cases.
The others are Mitchell Garabedian and Greenberg Traurig partner Roderick MacLeish Jr.
Garabedian just negotiated a $20 million settlement with the diocese on behalf of 86 clients who say they were abused by defrocked priest Geoghan.
Last week, MacLeish persuaded a judge to allow him to depose Cardinal Law. MacLeish wants to ask Law what he knew about Boston priest Paul Shanley's history of sexual abuse.
The lawyers have called for the creation of a victims fund for the area, one that could run as high as $100 million. Some estimates put the total number of new accusers in the last several months at more than 300. Many others have been turned away, because their allegations are too old. The total number of alleged victims of clergy abuse in the region could near 500.
"This diocese was one of the most revered; they do tremendous good work," says Newman, who represents 14 clients who say they were abused by church worker Christopher Reardon, sentenced last year to 40 years in prison. "It has thrown things into turmoil. It has caused people to obsess about lurid stories on a daily basis."
Newman has been making it standard practice to refer his new clients to the Massachusetts State Police to assist with investigations. "These people came to me. I walked each one down to the police department and sat with them through interviews," he says. Last week, that paid off with the indictment of former Worcester pastor Paul Desilets, who is living in Canada.
But Newman has found himself consistently frustrated in the Reardon case. The diocese, he says, has never attempted to settle a single claim, despite Reardon's criminal conviction on abuse charges. And last week, Newman went to court to obtain an order to force the church to surrender internal documents. (The lawyer for the Boston archdiocese, Wilson Rogers Jr., will not comment on any of the cases pending against the church.)
"They are making every wrong move they can make," Newman says. "I will no longer negotiate with them in this case."
A Sustained Conflict
Cindy Robinson has already had some measure of satisfaction. But it came after a brutally exhausting and emotionally draining eight-year court battle.
"It's impossible not to be struck by the victims," says the lawyer with Tremont & Sheldon in Bridgeport, Conn. "They had not only been betrayed by a priest, but by an institution."
Robinson's involvement began in 1992, when a young woman came to the firm claiming she had been abused by Bridgeport priest Raymond Pcolka. The bishop of the diocese then was Edward Egan, now cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York.
Robinson says that before the lawsuit was ever formally filed, she was called by church lawyers who asked her to drop the case and reminded her of the harm it could do to the diocese. She pressed forward, and from there, the church dug in for a fight.
Eventually, 11 other alleged victims of Pcolka came forward. But Robinson found herself obstructed at every turn. The church refused to allow Pcolka's or Egan's deposition and asked the court to strike the suit, claiming it was barred by the state statute of limitations. The majority of judges on the local bench were Catholic, and the case ended up transferred to nearby Waterbury. The court there refused to allow Robinson access to Pcolka's full personnel file and psychiatric treatment history.
In 1995, when Pcolka was finally deposed, he refused to answer more than 100 questions, claiming they would incriminate him. The church, too, refused to disclose information about abuse complaints against other priests in the diocese.
In 1997, the firm uncovered evidence that the Vatican had warned the Bridgeport diocese 30 years earlier to take responsibility for its abusive priests, but Robinson and other lawyers were unable to make the evidence public because of a gag order. Later that year, Robinson finally was allowed to take Egan's deposition.
"Egan was not a polished or spiritual person when it came to this sort of stuff," Robinson says. "He's a canon lawyer. He definitely knows how to spar in terms of semantics."
Egan's deposition, along with all of the court's internal documents, were sealed by the court. Last month, the Hartford Courant obtained the documents, which showed that court officials never referred any priests suspected of sex-abuse to civil authorities for prosecution. Instead, the newspaper reported, Egan sent priests to psychiatric hospitals and then returned them to parish service. Egan has since denied that he knowingly allowed abusive priests to remain active.
Last year, the diocese settled claims against six priests for about $15 million, but Robinson still can't talk about what she knows. "It was so unfair," she says.
Penitence and Punishment
Other lawyers across the country say that Catholic dioceses, when sued, will fight to the finish. Claudia Eklund sued the Catholic Church in Cleveland on behalf of a 19-year-old man who claimed he had been molested in his teens by a parochial school principal. Even though the principal was subsequently convicted on rape charges in 1997, the church offered no conciliation.
Instead, Eklund says, her client was subjected to a grueling deposition that lasted several days and inquired into his sexual history and forced him to re-create the abuse in exacting detail. "It was an intimidation ploy," Eklund says, "to try and get him to drop the case."
It worked. After the second day of his deposition, Eklund's client told her he couldn't go further. "It's unusual for a lawyer to come after a young man like that," she says. "It was the worst thing I've seen. It was unnecessary."
Nationwide, when Catholic churches have been sued, they have consistently used tactics reminiscent of a corporate defendant, not a church with a community reputation as an instrument of charity.
"It's hypocritical," Jeff Anderson says. "They have a right to defend themselves, but they don't have the right to deploy scorched earth tactics."
Patrick Schiltz, the dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis who has defended churches in abuse cases in all 50 states, says religious institutions walk a delicate line. "A lawyer should not represent a church the way a lawyer represents others," Schiltz says. "But when a plaintiff brings an emotional injury case against a church, you have no choice as a competent lawyer to ask about other causes for emotional problems."
Says defense lawyer Eisenzimmer: "Plaintiffs attorneys routinely accuse churches of being unfair when they rely on a statute of limitations defense, but there are legitimate reasons why the law makes those limits."
Southern California lawyer Katherine Freberg, who last year obtained a $5.2 million settlement against dioceses in Los Angeles and Orange County on behalf of a young man, Ryan DiMaria, who said he was abused by his Catholic high school principal, says the church "threw everything they could at me" over a four-and-a-half-year period.
At one point in Freberg's case, the dioceses argued that the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion prevented the court from interpreting canon law. It didn't work, although similar arguments have prevailed in other states such as Florida and Wisconsin.
DiMaria's settlement involved some notable precedents. Not only did he receive a formal apology from the dioceses, but also both agreed to a "zero tolerance" policy regarding abuse by clergy. That policy has yielded results. More than a dozen priests in the two districts have since been expelled by the church. "Ryan said he didn't want this to happen to anyone else," Freberg says.
An Earthly Light
As a self-described "ex-hippie," Anderson was a struggling young lawyer in 1983 until a colleague sent him a young man who had claimed he had been abused by an area priest. "I ended up suing the Catholic Church, somewhat ineptly," he says. "But they lied to me and tried to pay me off to keep quiet." The church, he said, offered his client $500,000 to settle the case, which he turned down. (He eventually settled for $1 million.)
That was the beginning. He says he has represented 500 victims of church sexual abuse -- a number some defense lawyers who know Anderson find hard to believe. The rear of his office is decorated with hate mail.
"I've been pilloried and vilified," says Anderson, who isn't Roman Catholic. "It goes with the territory."
But he had never sued the Vatican, until he met Rick Gomez, a 28-year-old software consultant who claims he was abused as a 14-year-old while attending Catholic school in Tampa. Gomez was willing to go public with his claim, and Anderson is someone who has never shied from the spotlight. Earlier this month, they held a press conference together in Florida, blasting the Vatican.
"I'm not afraid of publicity," Anderson says. "Exposure is a necessary part of change. I make no apology for letting people know there's a perp in a parish."
And, in case you're wondering, no, Anderson doesn't want to depose the Pope.
"I don't need to do that," he says.
Not yet, anyway.
Date Received: April 22, 2002