Minnesota lawyer goes after L.A. and S.F. archdioceses as well as Catholic high schools over abuse claims against clergy

By Danny Karel

Since the passage of California’s Child Victim’s Act, the law firm of attorney Jeff Anderson (second from the right) has filed a number of lawsuits seeking justice for sexual abuse survivors

From Dec. 26 to Jan. 2, attorney Jeff Anderson’s firm filed a flurry of lawsuits against all but one Roman Catholic bishop in California, the archdioceses of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a number of Catholic high schools, including St. Francis High in La Cañada Flintridge and Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

“That’s just the beginning,” said the Minneapolis-based Anderson who has spent nearly four decades representing survivors of sexual abuse committed by clergy. “We’re launching suits against a variety of institutions, from private to public, with dozens if not now hundreds of cases that our team is preparing. We’re getting calls and working them up as we speak.”

The reason for the lawsuits is Assembly Bill 218 (AB 218), or the California Child Victim’s Act, which was signed into law on Oct. 14 and went into effect on New Year’s Day. Anderson’s firm helped construct the language of the bill, which was pushed through the Legislature by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales of San Diego, and was instrumental in its passing.

AB 218 increases the time survivors of sexual assault can bring criminal charges against their abusers — from age 26 to 40, or within five years of discovering the connection between psychological injury and the assault — and triples the financial penalties for attempting to conceal abuse. It also opens a three-year window, which began when the law went into effect on Jan. 1, for survivors to seek damages against their abusers regardless of their age, when the abuse occurred, or whether their abuser is alive or dead.

The firm has held press conferences all over the state to raise awareness about the bill, and has posted ads in numerous publications, including The Argonaut.

“[The bill] has a lot of teeth,” said Anderson. “It’s very powerful.”

Anderson said he never expected to be a lawyer who would take on the Catholic Church.

In the early 1970s, 19-year-old Anderson was living in an apartment in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with his wife and infant son. He worked three jobs, but couldn’t afford their $50 monthly rent. He was saddled with $14,000 in medical debt and harbored a drinking problem.

He decided to return to school, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota where he became “turned on to the world” and took part in the peace and civil rights movements. He hurried through in two years and, after reading Clarence Darrow’s “Attorney for the Damned,” felt inspired to attend law school. He started working as a part-time public defender in 1975, and by the early ’80s had his own practice.

“In 1982, I had a mom and dad come into my office,” he said. “They reported that their son, who was then in jail, had just disclosed that he had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.”

When they brought the accusation to the local bishop, they were surprised by his neutral response. He said the priest had been moved to a different parish, and that the church had no plans for further action.

Anderson decided they had to go to the police, but the case, they were told, was time-barred by the statute of limitations. He prepared a lawsuit, which pressured the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to produce documents which revealed that the abusive priest had been regularly shuffled between dioceses. Conflicting explanations emerged.

Then, an anonymous tip (“It was no doubt a priest,” Anderson speculated) led the attorney to a victim who had been abused by the same priest years before, but had never come forward. He agreed to testify, solidifying Anderson’s case. The archdiocese attempted to settle for $1 million, but Anderson recommended that they turn it down.

“I trust you, Jeff,” Anderson recalled his client saying. “Turn it down quick before I change my mind. That’s a lot of fuckin’ money.”

Anderson filed the case, returned to his office, and called the media.

“Every day since then, survivors have been calling me,” he said.

Over the decades, Anderson said the statute of limitations on sexual assault has been a recurring obstacle for survivors seeking damages against the Catholic Church. Coming to terms with the crime can take years, and taking action often requires enormous courage.

“It’s a crime just like homicide,” said Anderson. “The murderer has the ability to bury the evidence of the crime in the ground or in the river. In sexual abuse, the perpetrator has the ability to bury the evidence of the crime in the soul, the psyche and the spirit of the victim.”

The three-year window opened by AB 218 gives survivors a unique opportunity to achieve a measure of justice. Anderson hopes it’s widely utilized, and
the flood of calls his firm has received has been an encouraging sign.

“The doors are open in a way they haven’t been before,” he said. “It’s really, really hard to break that silence, but when they see that other survivors have, they realize they aren’t alone.”