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Jeff Anderson, crusading lawyer on clergy sex abuse, finding new ways to get around legal roadblocks

In many of the thousands of lawsuits he has filed over the years against the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy, St. Paul’s Jeff Anderson ran up against the same seemingly impenetrable legal wall.

Because sex-abuse victims frequently endure years of misery before coming forward, by the time Anderson’s clients were ready to go public with their stories, statutes of limitation — legal deadlines for filing suit — had elapsed.

But now, after 27 years of looking for alternative legal avenues, it seems Anderson has found a couple of chinks in the wall.

As a result of two unrelated wrinkles in Wisconsin law, church officials were recently forced to turn over documents in several cases he is pursuing on behalf of alleged abuse victims. Among them is controversial correspondence between the Vatican and church officials in Wisconsin that reveals that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, knew that a Milwaukee priest abused as many as 200 boys at a church school for the deaf during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Scared of a potential scandal when victims complained, in 1996 Wisconsin church officials asked the Vatican for guidance. Eight months later, Ratzinger’s office ordered then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to proceed according to a little-known protocol, Anderson said Thursday. Instead of prosecuting or defrocking the priest, the protocol dictated strict silence, he said during a news conference he called after his discoveries became the topic of a front-page story in the New York Times.

All trails lead to Rome?
“All trails involved in the cover-up and the concealment of sex abuse by clerics lead to Rome and to the pope,” said Anderson. “As these documents reflect, their goal — and their purpose — at all times was to keep this secret and known only among themselves.”

Jeff Anderson

Jeff Anderson

From 1981 until his election as pope in 2005, Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that decides whether accused priests should be tried and defrocked. The office handled thousands of cases involving clergy sex abuse during his time there.

The letters Anderson obtained show that church officials were first told 36 years ago that the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy was molesting boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf, where he had worked since the 1950s. Many, it turned out, were solicited in the confessional.

In 1974, in response to complaints from several children, Murphy was moved to the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin, where he continued to serve in positions where he had contact with youth. One of Anderson’s clients claims to have been abused in his cell at the local juvenile detention center where Murphy was chaplain.

In the 1990s, after several high-profile prosecutions elsewhere had put sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in the public eye, a number of Murphy’s former students came forward with their stories of abuse. Murphy admitted molesting at least 34. After concluding there could be dozens more and worried about the publicity any ensuing lawsuits would generate, church officials wrote to Ratzinger.

Anderson said he had long known of a strict protocol governed the church’s handling of reports of abuse but was surprised to learn that how much of a chronology of the cases existed. “None of what we’ve read in these documents is new to us,” Anderson said. “What is new is the document trail.”

Protocol and public-relations damage control
The documents released by Anderson this week depict a church preoccupied with public-relations damage control. “True scandal in the near future seems very possible because in November of 1996, I received a letter from an attorney suggesting the possibility of civil court action which no doubt would become well known in this community,” Weakland wrote in one of the letters.

Milwaukee church officials wrote to the Vatican three times before they heard back from Ratzinger’s secretary, who ultimately replied that they were to proceed according to a 1962 protocol outlining the process to follow after a report of sexual abuse of a minor, homosexuality, bestiality, or in cases of solicitation in the confessional.

“When this process starts, no one is supposed to know about it except those involved,” said Anderson. “The victim doesn’t even know when the process is ended.”

In Murphy’s case, the process should begin with a secret canonical trial in Milwaukee, the Vatican instructed Wisconsin clergy in 1997. A month later, Murphy, who had shown no remorse even when he admitted to some of the molestations, wrote to Ratzinger. He was 72 and in ill health, he said.

“The accusations against me were for actions alleged to have taken place over 25 years ago,” he wrote. “I have repented of any of my past transgressions, and have been living peaceably in northern Wisconsin for 24 years. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”

The Milwaukee archbishop pushed for a trial, but the following spring the Vatican acceded to Murphy’s wishes. “He implored Ratzinger directly to give him a free pass,” said Anderson. “Because they did not want more publicity, they gave Murphy, an admitted, known pedophile, a free pass.”

Murphy died in Superior four months later.

Pope Benedict XVI greets followers during a youth festival in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Thursday.

REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico
Pope Benedict XVI greets followers during a youth festival in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Thursday.

“At no time did anyone in the Diocese of Milwaukee, the Diocese of Superior or the Vatican make any mention of determining the amount of damage done to the victims of this scandal, or try to determine the needs of the victims,” said Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who spoke with Anderson and attended the news conference.

In fact, church officials did not make an effort to ensure that Murphy had no contact with potential victims, added Mike Finnegan, one of Anderson’s colleagues. “At the time of this letter, 1996, Lawrence Murphy, the pedophile in this case, was still working in a parish in Boulder Junction in Wisconsin,” said Finnegan. “He was still working with youth. He was working with high school students. The whole eight months Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope, did nothing, he had access to these youth.”

Laws spelling out how long after an injury people have to bring suit make pursuing church sex-abuse cases particularly difficult. It’s often not until victims have led unhappy lives as adults for some time that they are ready to take stock of their past. Victims’ advocates in the Midwest, where the statutes are relatively strict, and those elsewhere have lobbied to loosen the allowed deadlines for such cases. Church leaders have worked hard to keep the statutes in place.

Anderson finds new ways around legal roadblocks
Anderson has refused to accept them as a definitive roadblock, however, and has sought new ways to haul the church into court. In the process, he has gained a reputation among critics as a zealot. The documents highlighted Thursday were the result of his creative use of two wrinkles in Wisconsin law.

A number of years ago, all 20 of his Wisconsin cases were put on hold pending the outcome of parallel cases involving liability insurance. Because complex civil cases can drag on for years, Wisconsin law allows lawyers to take depositions from witnesses who are 75 or older.

When two key witnesses in his five cases involving Murphy, including former Archbishop Weakland, reached that age last summer, Anderson was ready with a subpoena. Under oath, both said they had exchanged letters with Vatican officials about the cases; one traveled to Rome for a meeting about them.

Meanwhile, Anderson had begun filing suits accusing church officials of fraud, which is not subject to the same statutes as other complaints. In 2006, a Wisconsin court said a suit against the Milwaukee archdiocese could move forward and ordered the church to reply to Anderson’s requests for records pertaining to the case. In response, he recently received the chain of letters between Wisconsin and Rome.

“We’ve been in litigation against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for 22 years,” said Anderson.

The Wisconsin documents have come to light at a time when the Holy See is facing questions about the pope’s handling of sex-abuse scandals in Germany and Ireland. Benedict recently wrote to Irish church officials, urging them to cooperate with civil authorities in abuse cases.

Hours before Anderson addressed the news media in his downtown St. Paul offices, activists from Wisconsin and elsewhere with SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) protested outside the Vatican.

“The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret,” said Peter Isely, the group’s Milwaukee-based director, according to ABC News. “We need to know why he [the pope] did not let us know about him [Murphy] and why he didn’t let the police know about him and why he did not condemn him and why he did not take his collar away from him.”

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that defrocking is not automatic even in cases where abuse is proven. “The tragic case of Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what he did,” the statement read. “By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Father Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him.”

Representatives of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis declined comment. “I hate ‘no comment’ and we never use it, but it’s not anything we know any more about than we have read about on the Vatican website,” said spokesman Dennis McGrath.

Catholic leaders often complain that Anderson has failed to acknowledge everything the church has done to address the issue of sex abuse. U.S. churches have paid out billions in settlements and related expenses and tightened screening processes for would-be priests, they note.

Noting that Anderson’s legal crusades have made him a wealthy man, church defenders complain privately that his zeal for the issue will wane along with the supply of potential plaintiffs.

For his part, Anderson says his ultimate aim is transparency. Until they do away with the “culture of silence,” church leaders can’t truly put the issue of sex abuse to rest, he believes.

Clutching a sheaf of documents, Anderson said Thursday that if he had his way, he would ask Pope Benedict about the chain of letters. “I have yet to put the pope under oath,” he said.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Suzanne Hilgert on 03/26/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    I have watch Anderson’s zeal in these matters for years and commend him for his work. These are crimes against our children and the guilty should be prosecuted. Are criminal clergy above the law? Only when the Catholic Church admits these crimes and their participation in them will we Catholics have faith in our church again.

  2. Submitted by Greg Bullough on 03/26/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    Who are “Catholic leaders” to question Mr. Anderson’s motives? It’s really none of their business. They are, after all, the ones who set up the situation where their failure to take reasonable steps to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse, or to properly compensate them for the harm done.

    He has taken cases which nobody else would take, and put out all of the work ahead of receiving payment for the judgements. He’s taken the risk on behalf of his clients, who would not otherwise be able to afford such reputable and affective legal representations—
    whereas the Catholic Church can afford nothing but the best to defend itself against the individuals whom it has wronged.

    If Church leaders had defended the abuse survivors in the first place, they wouldn’t have to defend themselves against Jeff Anderson now.

    And those “good things” the Church has done lately? The reason they’ve done the at all is because they’re afraid of Jeff Anderson and his professional colleagues!

    Jeff and his firm have gone after some of the most vicious sexual predators in this country, and their enablers.

    Go, Jeff!

  3. Submitted by Jack Harris on 03/26/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    Jeff never made a dime off of me and my clergy abuse case in NJ (in which the allegations were officially deemed credible by the county prosecutor’s office), yet he has been one of the most thoughtful, compassionate supporters I know. And I know of other survivors who Jeff is extremely supportive of who are not represented by Jeff or other attorneys.

    This is a crusade for Jeff and he is one of our nations most committed advocates for those Hubert Humphrey once referred to as being “in the shadows of life”.

    Sexual abuse hurts and has immense repercussions across one’s entire life.

    Knowing that folks like Jeff Anderson are out there standing up for survivors of clergy abuse against big, politically powerful, wealthy institutions like the Church brings great comfort and solace.

  4. Submitted by Bob Zyskowski on 03/26/2010 - 03:13 pm.

    Does every reporter in the Twin Cities feel obligated to kiss the feet of Jeff Anderson? Maybe if reporters tried getting their information from other sources and not taking every word Anderson says as Gospel — and not see that he spins everything to help make his cases — they’d see some of these sex abuse cases with a greater degree of perspective. For a much different take, click on for information about how the church handles these issues. It’s written by a reporter who actually digs into the background and doesn’t let a lawyer with a vested interest dictate the news.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/26/2010 - 07:05 pm.

    Bob, don’t you think the National Catholic Reporter has a vested interest, especially when the topic is the pope’s complicity in criminal acts? That pathetic article you linked to is exactly why we need Jeff Anderson – we need someone who will stand up for the truth and for the victims here.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 03/26/2010 - 09:28 pm.

    Organized Religion is not based on rationality; it is based on confusion, cover-up, indoctrination, and mysticism.
    On a separate note, I would love it if countries took a good hard look at the benefits they give to Organized Religion and started taxing them as any other business.

  7. Submitted by Wally Carr on 03/27/2010 - 07:40 am.

    As a Catholic, I am deeply thankful for the work of Mr Anderson in holding corrupt leaders accountable. Too many leaders in the Church still view themselves as ruling by Divine Right.

  8. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/27/2010 - 11:42 am.

    The Catholic Church has no credibility left whatsoever. Until the church reports every single case of reported sexual abuse to local law enforcement they have no moral authority. Thousands of preists all over the world are still hidden away and continue to abuse children. Statements from Pope Benedict offer more evidence that he is a long way from acknowledging the truth and willing to confront the depth and scope of pedophile priests and the immense damage they have done to children and others in so many countries. Until he promises to feret out every priest suspected of perpetrating abuse and guarantees they will be turned over to the jurisdiction of local law enforcement he is the supreme accessory to these crimes. When he comes clean to the hundreds of decisions he made that resulted in relocated pedophiles to situations where they could continue to commit crimes then we might begin to take his remorse seriously. When the church has a change of heart and actually cares for their members more than the reputation of known pedophiles within the priesthood then we might start giving them a small amount of credibility. Until that time, the Catholic Church has no credibility and lawyers such as Jeff Anderson are charged with defending those who are most vulnerable and have been victimized by a church that has neve cared about them or offered a shred of protection from continued abuse.
    Perhaps never before has the infallability of the Pope been challenged in such a direct and public manner. The past of Josph Ratzinger is littered with ghosts that infect his judgement today. Will we see a Pope resign in disgrace?

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/29/2010 - 11:32 am.

    I heartily applaud Jeff Anderson’s efforts; it’s a shame that he needs to find “chinks” in an armor that has no right being donned.

    The Church hierarchy has failed, and failed miserably, to protect Catholic boys…yes, you read that right, Catholic boys.

    Because the fact of the matter is that more than 80% of known cases of molestation involve the homosexual abuse of pubescent boys by priests; the Church doesn’t have a pedophile problem, it’s a pederasty problem.

    It’s important to make that distinction if we really care about solving this problem. Because if you wish to hold the Pope’s feet to the fire, the proper question is not just why he condoned the cover up, but why he, and his predecessors, allowed men who suffer from, as the Church rightly notes, an inherently disordered mental state to be trusted with kids in the first place.

    There are tens of thousands of loyal, dedicated priests selflessly serving the Church in every far flung corner of the planet. It’s a shame that their good work has been tainted by the predatory intentions of the few, and the deliberate inattention of the fewer.

    Couple of other opportunities for clarification…

    Wally, as any Catholic knows, the leaders of the Catholic Church *do* serve Christ’s Church by divine right.

    William, I’m guessing you’re not Catholic, so you would have no way of knowing that the Pope’s gift of infallibility, which was granted by Christ Himself to Simon Peter or Cephas, the first pope, concerns the protection of the Church’s doctrine only. History is replete with evidence of the Holy See’s human failings in “matters of the flesh”; no pun intended.

    Try googling “the Magisterium” for further clarification.

  10. Submitted by Charles Farley on 03/31/2010 - 10:33 am.

    Jeff Anderson’s motivations should not be confused with compassion for the victims. There isn’t that much difference, for example, in his beliefs or those of many Bishops who DID act irresponsibly. The thought has occured to some that there is colusion between them, after all, it’s not the Catholic Church that’s trying to make pederasts a protected class under Hate Crimes Legislation, it’s the Democratic Party.

    Jeff’s been a long-time member of the ACLU and a significant contributor to the Democratic Party.

    It would be nice if he went after Obama’s Safe-School Czar with the same malice he attacks the Roman Catholic Church, but his real masters would geld him.

    Too bad the sloppy reporting of NYTs agit-prop schmear job isn’t going to yield very good results; certainly not the results that Socialist Activists like Jeff Anderson want.

  11. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/31/2010 - 02:07 pm.

    When all else fails, try gay-bashing. How repulsive.

    Neither the Democratic party, nor the ACLU, nor Jeff Anderson supports what the Catholic church allowed here – the rape of children by adults. While both the rapists and the victims in many cases were male, the issue here isn’t sexual orientation, its consent. Believing that gays and lesbians (who, according to all reputable medical and psychological groups, are not afflicted with any kind disordered mental state) are entitled to equal rights is an entirely different issue from consent laws.

    I can’t judge Anderson’s motivations – I can only judge his accomplishments. This is a guy who has won justice for victims against a church that has tried to deny them that justice. He has exposed the truth where that church had sought to keep that truth hidden. Based on that record, I would say that its not Anderson’s motivations that should be questioned.

  12. Submitted by Charles Farley on 03/31/2010 - 03:10 pm.

    The ACLU has a record for attacking religion and the Democratic party has a record for legitimizing adults having sex for children. As you infer, consent is the sole criterion of the good.

    Jeff should probably clean up the sex-abuse going on in his own party before he tries to earn money going after the Catholic Church.

    Of course, you won’t talk about your Safe Sex with Minors Czar appointed by Obama, because that makes your claims against the Catholic Church look ridiculous.

    The fact of the matter is that there is more abuse going on in the Lutheran Church, the Rabbinate of New York City and the Minneapolis Public Schools system, but Jeff ain’t going there, is he?

  13. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/31/2010 - 10:33 pm.

    I would be glad to talk about the “Safe Sex with Minors Czar.”

    First, I assume that the “Safe Sex with Minors czar” you are referring too is Kevin Jennings, who is actually the “safe schools czar” in the administration.

    20 years ago while working as a high school counselor, a gay student advised Jennings that he was having a sexual relationship with an older man, and Jennings told him to make sure to use condoms. This incident is only known because Jennings himself wrote about in his books, and has admitted that he handled the situation poorly. The student, who is very supportive of Jennings, has since come forward and disclosed that he was actually 16 at the time, which was the age of consent, meaning that there was nothing illegal about the relationship or Jennings’ advice.

    Jennings may not have given good advice (which he readily admits) but he was acting as an advocate the powerless – the gay and lesbians students in his school. Those that Anderson is pursuing- the church and the pope – have been acting to protect themselves against the claims of the church’s victims. Bad (but legal) advice to a still appreciative 16 year old is quite different than working to cover up the rape of thousands of children by Catholic priests.

    There may well be abuse going on in Minneapolis public schools and in other religious orders. Its a sad fact of life that there are and always will monsters out there who will prey on the powerless. The difference here – and the reason for the lawsuits – is that the Catholic Church and this pope have worked to protect their monsters and enabled them to continue victimizing children long after their crimes were known. If other groups had acted the way the Catholic Church has, Anderson or others like him would be pursuing them as well. This isn’t about politics or anti-Catholic bias. This is about holding the church responsible for its criminal behavior.

  14. Submitted by Charles Farley on 04/01/2010 - 08:10 am.

    Mr Hintz, so what you’re telling me is that the school administration was informed that Jenning’s victim was not of the age of consent, and he (a school administrator) didn’t report it to law enforcement, 20 years ago?

    More importantly, it’s a fact that children are more likely to be sexually abused by the faculty in public schools and institutions than in Catholic ones.

    Actually, Jewish Rabbis are more of a threat to minors than Catholic priests and it is also a point of Talmudic law that this is the case.

  15. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/02/2010 - 11:25 am.

    First, he wasn’t Jennings’s victim, and actually wasn’t a victim at all since he was the age of consent. Second, the older man was not a school employee or someone that Jennings had jursidiction over – the context is entirely different from the abuse committed by employees of the Church – and laws regarding reporting abuse in that situation were not the same as today. Finally, Jennings – who self-reported this incident – admits that he made a mistake and should have reported it, and in doing so has demonstrated far more courage and responsibility than just about anyone in the Catholic church. Comparing a single episode of someone giving bad advice to someone who supports him to the widespread rape of children by priests is pretty weak.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that children are more likely to be abused in public school or by Jewish Rabbis, but if that were true we would be hearing about it. While you may think this is an anti-Catholic conspiracy, the reason the Catholics are the focus is because of the actions of the church. As I said previously, its a fact of life that abusers can turn up anywhere. What matters the reaction once that abuse is discovered, and what has caused the problems for the Catholic church has been their disgraceful reaction. When there is abuse in public schools, it is reported to the police. When there has been abuse in the Catholic church, the abuse has been covered up, the abusers given more opportunities to abuse children, and the victims of the abuse blamed for what occurred. That is the difference with the Catholic Church, and why the church is under fire today.

  16. Submitted by Charles Farley on 04/02/2010 - 05:36 pm.

    In a sense he was one of his victims because he covered up the abuse and didn’t report it as he was required to do by law (and it was my intention to imply that, thanks for noticing). Does saying “I’m sorry” after the fact amount to much? I don’t think so, and if Jennings had been a priest, I’m sure you’d be crying out for his blood. But you didn’t answer my question, why is that?

    Actually, sex abuse in the schools is far worse than in the Catholic Church and institutions run by Her. Perhaps if you didn’t hear about it, is probably because your leftist-run media isn’t interested in reporting it, or because it doesn’t fit your own erroneous but deeply held beliefs?

    I cite the following for your edification:

    “Now, on the heels of the Catholic abuse scandal comes another of historic proportions—one that has the potential to be much greater and far-reaching. According to a draft report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, in compliance with the 2002 “No Child Left Behind” act signed into law by President Bush, between 6 percent and 10 percent of public school children across the country have been sexually abused or harassed by school employees and teachers.

    Charol Shakeshaft, the Hofstra University scholar who prepared the report, said the number of abuse cases—which range from unwanted sexual comments to rape—could be much higher.

    “So we think the Catholic Church has a problem?” she told industry newspaper Education Week in a March 10 interview.”

  17. Submitted by Melissa Hughes on 07/06/2010 - 06:17 pm.

    Charles Farley: And your point is? Defend abuse over here because it also happens over there? If child-abuse A is worse than child-abuse B then don’t fight child-abuse B at all? Do you even Hear yourself?

  18. Submitted by Melissa Hughes on 07/06/2010 - 06:26 pm.

    Richard Schulze: So ‘Disorganized’ religion would be better? All human beings have a right to get together with, socialize with, and organize with others who think as they do. It’s the natural and intelligent thing to do.

    There are tons and tons of things in life that are completely non-religios that are based on ‘confusion’ &/or ‘indoctrination’ &/or ‘cover-up.’ You erroneously impugn the integrity & level-headedness of millions of innocent people by judging them according to the actions of some in their ‘group.’ As far as mysticism goes, there is a spiritual aspect to life & hundreds of millions of people know it in every single nationality & ethnic group on the planet. Just because something is not formulated and bottled in a lab somewhere doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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