Lawyer's practice focuses on clergy-abused children

Jeff Anderson (left) is joined by Mike Finnegan, another lawyer. Behind them is a photo of the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, a priest accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Jeyapaul is now in India.
Jeff Anderson (left) is joined by Mike Finnegan, another lawyer. Behind them is a photo of the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, a priest accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Jeyapaul is now in India.
Posted: April 12, 2011

Looking back, it seems clear now to Jeff Anderson that it was a twist of fate - not some premeditated plan - that launched his legal career.

In the early 1980s, Anderson, now 63, was a young lawyer in St. Paul, Minn., searching for his niche. He was passionate about civil rights and devoted half his practice to representing poor clients in criminal and civil cases on behalf of the local public defender's office.

It was then that another lawyer referred the parents of an imprisoned sex offender to Anderson. The story they told astonished him.

Their son had been molested by a Roman Catholic priest in their Minnesota parish for years before he himself was convicted and sent to jail. They reported the abuse to the bishop, who listened quietly during the meeting. A few days after the get-together, a $1,500 check arrived in the mail from the archdiocese - without explanation.

"They were heartbroken and bewildered as they told me the story," said Anderson, who sued and eventually settled for a substantial sum.

Since then, Anderson has become one of the nation's best-known lawyers litigating child sex-abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church.

He is carving out a practice in this region. In the wake of a Philadelphia grand jury investigation that resulted in cover-up charges against a former church official and sexual-assault charges against two priests, a defrocked priest, and a parochial-school teacher, he has joined forces with two locally based lawyers to represent alleged victims.

So far, the trio - Anderson, Exton-based solo practitioner Daniel Monahan, and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law professor Marci Hamilton, once a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - have filed five lawsuits, with up to 50 additional cases in the pipeline.

"He is really dedicated to this issue. It is sincere, and it comes from the heart," Hamilton said of Anderson's practice. She worked as a consultant to former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham on an earlier grand jury report on pedophile priests in 2005.

Donna Farrell, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declined to comment on Anderson or his practice.

Anderson's first case set a pattern that has characterized much of the litigation he has pursued over the years.

Under oath, senior church officials told him at the outset that the priest in question had no record of abuse. Soon afterward, Anderson said, he was contacted by a tipster who told a different story. For years, there had been complaints about the alleged abuser. But the church had done nothing.

"So the archbishop and the bishops all had been lying to me," Anderson said.

Armed with this new information, he filed suit, even as the church dangled a $1 million settlement in front of him and his client. The case eventually was settled for more, but it launched Anderson on a seemingly nonstop whirl of litigation.

Few lawyers know this space better than Anderson, who has been litigating such cases for nearly three decades.

He and his St. Paul-based firm have filed thousands of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church primarily, but also against other religious denominations and institutions or businesses, such as day-care providers, that allegedly looked the other way in the face of credible information that clerics or employees were molesting children.

Besides St. Paul, Anderson has offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, and he recently opened an office in London, where the firm also is pursuing abuse cases against the church.

There are nearly a dozen laywers in Anderson's firm, along with staff. He hires former FBI agents to do the investigative work needed to corroborate victims' claims.

The cases have made him very financially successful, and even though he won't say how much he has earned, Anderson acknowledged that he no longer has any financial worries.

It wasn't always so. Anderson grew up in Minneapolis and was raised in a traditional Lutheran home, although he said the church's teachings "never resonated with me."

He was married at 19 and had a child, dropped out of college, and scrambled to earn a living, jumping from one job to the next. He worked as a roofer and a shoe salesman, and in other low-paying positions.

"Those were hard times," he said. "I was terrified of that life."

He went back to college and then to law school. He divorced and remarried, borrowed occasionally on his house to finance his practice, and overcame a drinking problem.

Eventually, though, his practice representing sex-abuse victims took off.

Now, he is representing clients not only against local and regional church officials but is suing the Vatican itself, having won a key decision in a Seattle sex-abuse lawsuit last year in which the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Vatican that it had immunity from such suits.

In the Philadelphia region, there has been no explosion of cases, as has occurred in Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities where the church has been deeply embroiled in sex-abuse litigation.

Anderson's cocounsel Monahan said that may be because the statute of limitations is more restrictive in Pennsylvania, or possibly because Catholics in the region are more conservative and less inclined to challenge the church.

Whatever the reason, fewer lawyers here focus on the practice than in other places.

Anderson is one of the few who has made it a national practice. And, he said, the same passion that drove him as a young lawyer sustains him today.

"I had to go heavily into debt, and many times had to pledge everything I owned, including my house," he said. "It has enabled me to have financial freedom and to follow the purpose that I started with and help survivors who have been wounded."


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

 

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