Jeff Anderson & Associates: From Pioneer to Powerhouse

Jeff Anderson & Associates
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Jeff Anderson & Associates story

Attorney Jeff Anderson, founder of Jeff Anderson & Associates PA, remembers well the moment that changed the trajectory of his career. The year was 1983, and a distraught family came to him with a shocking story. Their trusted family priest had repeatedly sexually abused their son years before. When they took the news to their bishop, they were met with stoic silence. A few days later, the Riedle family received a check from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for $1,500.00. Heartbroken and confused, they sought Anderson’s counsel.

Anderson first instructed his clients to cash the check and report the matter to the police, who told them nothing could be done. He next reached out to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis demanding answers and the immediate removal of the offending priest, who had been moved to another parish. After conducting an extensive investigation, collecting conflicting depositions, and receiving an anonymous insider tip, Anderson revealed evidence of a staggering coverup involving high-ranking members of the clergy who had known of the offender for 20 years, concealing his crimes by relocating him to eight different parishes. Anderson could prove what had happened, and he had witnesses.

He prepared a lawsuit and served it on the church — the first case like it in the United States. While denying any knowledge of the priest’s history of sexual abuse, the Catholic Church offered a $1 million settlement, provided the Riedle family would sign a confidentiality agreement. The church representative told Anderson, “This is what we do.”

“This is what we do.” Those words chilled Anderson, as they were a clear signal that the bishops had concealed child sexual abuse before.

Anderson presented the offer of settlement to his clients. It was their decision. But understanding that there would surely be other victims if they did not speak out, they turned down the church’s offer and trusted Anderson to wage the fight. Anderson proceeded to the courthouse and filed the lawsuit. When he returned to his office, he called the media.

“The lawsuit revealed a pattern of cover-up and longstanding concealment, allowing abuse to occur time and again,” Anderson said. “They removed the priest once we sued, but denied responsibility and their coverup.”

Anderson had lit a fire, and the winds of fury conveyed the sparks all the way to the Vatican. His phone began ringing with calls from survivors who had been abused by that priest and others across country.

“That first case was 37 years ago, and my phone has been ringing ever since,” Anderson said. “Every day, I have the chance in law to answer a call, knowing that I can do something: first, listen; second, be there to persist and use the law to not only help those who have been hurt, but create a sacred alliance with every survivor devoted commonly to their recovery and the protection of other children in the future.”

Jeff Anderson & Associates continues to demand justice for survivors of child sexual abuse. Today, the firm is home to nearly 90 full-time professionals and 18 lawyers who are devoted to the cause of advocating for and representing survivors. The firm is unique in the nation for its exclusive representation of child sexual abuse victims, its national and international reach, and its unrivaled experience and precedent-setting results in this area of practice.

A Life of Love in Law

As a young man, Anderson said he always identified with the underdog, the disadvantaged and the underprivileged. He became involved with civil rights, which gave him a sense of purpose, passion and engagement. Then he read a book that awakened him to his path: “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned,” by John A. Farrell, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography.

Anderson went to law school at night, while continuing to work and support his family by day. “I realized the study of law is backward looking instead of forward looking. It is a study of what is rather than of what could be. I wanted to ask the question, ‘What can we do today to shape tomorrow and make it better, safer, fairer — particularly for those who are dispossessed or disadvantaged?’”

While in law school, Anderson worked as a student advocate for the public defender’s office, where he successfully defended a black man who had been arrested for using the restroom in a wealthy white church. “That’s when I knew I could make a difference one person at a time.” Imbued with faith in himself and the system, Anderson went on to volunteer as a public defender after law school. He first founded Jeff Anderson & Associates in 1981, with a focus on civil rights and poverty law.

After pioneering that first case against the Catholic Church, Anderson understood that his true calling was to help survivors of child sexual abuse. “This is what gives me purpose and passion in this life,” he said. “What I want is first, to prevent this from happening to others; and second, to get some portion of what was robbed from people back by giving them purpose, a better life and making the world safer for the future. I call it living a life of love in law, because every day I’m given the chance to be part of a survivor’s journey, to take pain and sorrow and help transform that trauma from something so dark and shameful to something hopeful. At the age of 73, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up.”

In the fight against child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, schools, other institutions and individual offenders, Anderson has assembled a team of allies across the country, including firm partner Mike Finnegan. Finnegan was inspired by Anderson at an early age, familiar with Anderson’s work through his attorney father, a St. Paul public defender. After his first semester in law school, Finnegan asked to clerk for Anderson over the summer. And that’s when the Boston Globe “Spotlight” broke the story about former priest John J. Geoghan, who sexually assaulted numerous children for three decades in a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.

“It was January 2002,” Finnegan recalled. “The story went worldwide, and it put heat back on Catholic bishops for concealment of child sex abuse. It happened within my first week at the firm, so I was busy right out of the gate talking to survivors. Once I started hearing their stories and seeing the courage it took to share them with me, it was life-changing.”

These many years later, Finnegan said it still lights him up to come into the office and talk to survivors every day. “I love seeing survivors come forward and tell their story, when often it’s the first time they’ve told anybody in the world; seeing them get their power back and go from making the decision to disclose to holding somebody accountable; seeing them make incredible improvements in their lives. Being a small part of that journey is the piece that keeps me going.”

Reaching Across Time for Justice

The victories Anderson and his colleagues have achieved are greater than any individual case. Through ongoing lobby efforts, they have worked with state legislatures to temporarily suspend statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse cases and opened the courthouse doors to thousands who have been silent victims. Jeff Anderson & Associates has been instrumental in the passage of a series of Child Victims Acts, allowing survivors to bring civil suits, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

“When I took that first case against the Catholic Church, it was time barred, but I took it anyway,” Anderson said. “As I started taking more cases, I realized that the statutes were protecting the wrong class of people. I lobbied for a law in Minnesota, and in 1989, the legislature passed a window law that gave survivors a chance to bring litigation for one year. Through that, I filed a massive number of cases, which exposed the coverup inside the church even more so. I asked other legislatures to look at that and used Minnesota as a model. I was eventually able to try cases across the country and got a major verdict against Cardinal Mahoney in California.”

Anderson has demonstrated time and again that he is a master at using the media to apply pressure to his opponents. His firm also spends substantial resources and uses media of all sorts to alert survivors to hard-won and limited opportunities to hold perpetrators accountable.

“Delivering the message is the key,” said Anderson. “As a trial lawyer, I can take the case, but it takes months or years to get to the courtroom. In the past, lawyers wait for the courtroom to reveal the truth. But when it comes to child protection, it can’t wait. We have to remove priests immediately and report to police immediately. I can’t let them hurt another kid while I’m on watch. The media becomes the messenger and means of exposing peril. Every day I talk to media. I’ve assembled a communications team of 10 people who spend every day writing stories and contacting media to expose perils in real time that we are learning about. It’s every bit as important as readying a case for trial. We now do paid advertising to reach victims. We believe it is our obligation to spend money trying to reach them. We have to be innovative, creative and aggressive. The clock is ticking. We want every survivor to have the opportunity to help themselves and others. I feel a sense of urgency every day to do everything I can. People read about enormous successes. We pour a significant portion back into the movement.”

Jeff Anderson & Associates is urgently spreading the word of open Child Victims Act windows in three states, two of which are closing soon. All claims under the New York Child Victims Act must be filed by August 13, 2021. All claims under the New Jersey Victims’ Rights Bill must be filed by November 30, 2021. All claims under the California Child Victims Act must be filled by December 31, 2022.

Anderson and his team know all too well what happens when a statutory window closes. Finnegan said, “Back in 2002, a law passed that opened up a one-year window in California. It was the first one after the Boston story broke. A number of survivors came forward during that window, but one of the things we found — and the most heartbreaking thing for me, Jeff and our other attorneys — is that lots of survivors called after the window closed. They had no idea the law had changed. We had to tell them there was nothing we could do right now. It’s one of the hardest things to explain to a survivor, especially after they have mustered the courage it takes to come forward. We tried a number of times after to get the law changed again in California and elsewhere. Three years ago, we reengaged in California and were successful.”

“We are representing hundreds of survivors now in all those states,” Anderson said. “Opening the courthouse doors to survivors brings light, which brings heat, which brings change.”

A Goal of Zero Abuse

At its core, Jeff Anderson & Associates is a firm built around putting survivors first. By taking a holistic approach to helping survivors, it not only seeks justice for past wrongs, it helps survivors find their voices and the resources they need to take their lives back. Anderson’s purpose isn’t just winning against the bad guys; it’s facilitating the transformation of those who have been harmed.

“Over the last decade, we’ve worked to be more trauma informed,” Finnegan said. “From top to bottom, everybody who works with us is trained in working with survivors. A few years ago, we realized we needed to be even more supportive on the side of advocating for survivors and making sure they got the support they needed throughout their litigation journey, so we started an advocacy program. We have more than 15 advocates across our offices who work with survivors. The majority are social workers and therapists whose primary job is to support them, communicate with them and help them through this journey. This is so radically different than most other torts, where some event happens, and a person recovers from a defined injury. Child sexual abuse changes a person for the rest of their life. Often, it is not until decades later that a person processes it and realizes that their alcoholism or inability to be in relationships or problems with authority in all their jobs goes back to what happened to them as a kid. Part of our process is to help them process that.”

In 2018, Anderson founded the Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit committed to eliminating child sexual abuse in all of its forms and transforming institutions in order to effectively prevent, recognize and respond to child sexual abuse. The National Child Protection Training Center and Jacob Wetterling Resource Center joined the Zero Abuse Project family in 2019. Programs provide cross-disciplinary education and training; advocacy for systemic legal change; guidance for survivor support; and leadership on emerging technologies.

This year’s Annual Zero Abuse Project Summit is a virtual event slated for June 22-23, 2021. It is accessible to all front-line child abuse professionals no matter their location. Victor Vieth, Rita Farrell and other national investigative child protection experts will be leading discussions on emerging issues in forensic interviewing, investigation and prosecution.

Trauma to Triumph to Truth

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before they are 18 years old. Many in the know argue that these are grossly conservative estimates. According to Stop It Now!, an advocacy group for survivors, 60% of children who are sexually abused do not disclose.

In a recent article entitled “The Long-Lasting Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse” published in “Psychology Today,” Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D. asserts that child sexual abuse causes measurable psychological, physical, social and economic impacts, including: disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD; long-term impacts on physical health, with people being more likely to report pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and obesity; and negative social effects, such as sexual or relationship problems, and socioeconomic outcomes, such as lower income.

Abuse within religious institutions is particularly insidious, since it is delivered by those who purportedly represent the greatest authority of all — God. What greater power might an abuser wield than the existential threat that accompanies the scorn of one’s creator and the promise of annihilation? When a child is thus shamed, where might he or she go for absolution, for solace, for hope?

America is facing a social reckoning, and it is reexamining the many hierarchical institutions responsible for fomenting abuses and harboring the perpetrators of acts that sustain economic disparity, racism and social inequality. But each time a survivor is empowered to use their voice, the voices of others are amplified, becoming a chorus that cannot be ignored. Jeff Anderson & Associates is a beacon of hope for those who are lost in the darkness of child sexual abuse. To be heard and to be believed are the first steps toward healing.

Few attorneys can say they have actually sued the Pope, but Anderson has done so on five occasions. And for all its flaws, the U.S. legal system is providing the means by which to go after a centuries-old and corrupt global citizen — the Roman Catholic Church — and setting precedents for how other individuals and organizations will be held accountable in the future. Anderson calls this effort the “Second Reformation.”

After bearing witness to so much ugliness, one would think Anderson would have become jaded. Yet, he remains a deeply spiritual individual.

“Rumi said that true spirituality is full engagement with the world,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I have a deep spiritual life. It has been enriched and enhanced by the courage of these survivors and colleagues who have faith in one another and have shared passion and sacrifice. It is that which fuels and inspires and strengthens me every day. It helps me live in a place of pain sorrow, and honor that, but also know that these can be transformed into something born of truth. There is a higher virtue — I call it trauma to triumph to truth — that allows us to stand together.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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