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As promised, here are the notes from my conversation with Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s U.S. counsel, who recently talked with me for my Religion News Service feature concerning the lawsuits filed by Catholic clergy abuse victims against the Holy See. In contrast to victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson, Lena doesn’t like to give interviews, so people following the abuse scandal haven’t heard much from him yet.

Think of this as the Web version of a DVD extra. (If you like this sort of thing, I can do it more often — share your thoughts in the Comments section below.)

LENA ON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:

In the popular culture, there is perception of “one big Catholic Church” that understandably derives from the important value placed on theological unity by the Church. And Jeff Anderson uses this idea effectively to promote his “all roads lead to Rome” thesis. But when it comes to the administrative structure of the Church – which is what counts in these cases – he is just wrong. Administrative matters are largely not top down, but bottom up. After all, dioceses operate as separate corporations (called “juridic persons” in the canon law) wherein bishops run the local show and are responsible for the priests in their diocese. The focus on doctrinal unity masks this fact. In the cases I have handled, the Vatican never even heard of the existence of these priests until well after the abusive events occurred. In some cases, the Vatican never heard of them until the lawsuits themselves – some thirty years later. The idea that these priests are employees of the Holy See stretches the concept of “employee” beyond all imagination.

If Gavin Newsom is doing something in San Francisco, everybody doesn’t run to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office and sue Schwarzenegger. If there’s an abusive teacher in the Berkeley public schools, I’m going to take it up with the Berkeley unified school district; I sure am not going to take it up with Gov. Schwarzenegger, much less the president of the United States. I might take up with them questions of modification of the law, but not their legal responsibility. That is because we understand how the constitutional system of the United States works. But there has been little effort in reporting stories about the Holy See to understand the constitutional legal framework of the Church. It is for this reason that some people may be a bit frustrated with some stories in the media – a lot of reporting about the Holy See’s relation to the diocese lacks an understanding of how authority is allocated and exercised within the Catholic Church. 

ON HIS APPROACH TO THE ABUSE LAWSUITS:

I have generally tried to avoid being “out there.” Until the media frenzy exploded three weeks ago, I was quietly minding my cases. I do try to maintain an unassuming approach to things. I do not have a corporate style and do not wish to adopt one. Indeed, I was as interested in teaching as practicing law. I have a background as a teacher in higher education before I was a lawyer and that affects my style. When I am presenting something to a court I view it as a kind of a “teaching moment.” I don’t jump up and down, or yell and scream like some of the more aggressive attorneys out there. I prefer a soft-spoken style. Helping the court to understand a case, rather than simply beating down your opponent, is a preferable approach to litigation. And I am casual; sartorial splendor is best reserved for the courtroom.

ON JEFF ANDERSON, CLERGY ABUSE VICTIMS’ ATTORNEY:

Jeff and I know each other through the case in Oregon, and we have known each other for years. We first met in the courtroom. I recall it very well because he was very gracious. He said, after our first adversary hearing was over, “you just schooled me.” His legal theories and use of the media strike me as exaggerated, but he is a formidable opponent and has always conducted himself in a professional manner in the courtroom and in private discussions. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a demigod; he is more like the “60 million dollar man,” which is reportedly what he has taken out of his cases against dioceses. He has his hand in so many cases around the country, some refer to it as the “Jeff Anderson franchise system.” In any case, the matters being litigated are too serious for there to be focus on the personalities of the attorneys.

ON POPE BENEDICT:

He’s not an aggressive person, he’s a thoughtful person. Anybody who has met him would recognize this special quality. As is well known, he was able to live a relatively private life before, he could engage in his studies, walk the streets and lead the semblance of a normal life before he became Pope. Naturally, once he became Pope, he was swept into another world. He’s super smart. Anybody who picks up any of his serious books will recognize the quality of his work. Personally, those who know him, know him to be a somewhat shy and sweet person. He is also a listener, and speaks after considering what others have said. There are also grave misconceptions about the Roman Curia, which is that body of people gathered around the Pope to assist in the Pope’s work. There is an image of rigidity and closed mindedness. This is, however, just that: image. In reality the people who collaborate as part of the Roman Curia are well educated, intellectually curious and friendly people who are politically and socially diverse, and come from a diversity of nations and cultures. The hidebound image of the Curia is a completely unfair portrayal.

ON THE VATICAN’S SCANDAL RESPONSE:

The hierarchy has hinted to the media that there may be some new initiatives, but it is important in the meantime to recognize just how much has been done already — particularly since this Pope came to the helm. There is frustration at times because so many of the cases for which blame is being leveled against the Holy See happened so long ago. So much has changed, and “change” is an underreported aspect of this story. What is sad is that the media continues to report “truisms” – like the incorrect idea that the canon law barred reporting of incidents of abuse to civil authorities. Slowly, one hopes people will come to understand how many within the hierarchy cared so much about this issue and have quietly tolerated being lambasted by the media and just continued to work hard on the core problem.

This is the moment in history when people who have suffered abuse will now feel freer to talk about it and realize that the shame should be on the abuser, not on them for having been abused. That is important. The heroes are not the lawyers. A tribute is due to the courage of those who came forward to report abuse.

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