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Belief Beat

Pope Watch: Vatican’s U.S. Attorney, In His Own Words, On the Clergy Abuse Scandal

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.)


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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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Comments read comments(11)
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posted April 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm

With all due respect to Mr. Lena, if the Vatican had wished to avoid the “frustration” about the constant news reporting on cases that happened “long ago”, perhaps they should have been more forthcoming in releasing documents regarding these cases instead of sitting on them and resisting attempts to bring them into the light of day. This is perhaps the most disingenuous argument I see offered by the Vatican and its supporters. Having sat on these documents for decades, they now complain that the cases are old and should therefore not be newsworthy. Hello!?!?! In many case the general public is just now learning the scope of this scandal, and there are STILL revelations coming out about abuse that happened decades ago but, thanks to the work of bishops and the Vatican, were kept secret until recently.
If you really want to make this go away, the first step in this is to come clean on everything. Don’t make the courts rip the documents from your clenched fists. Open everything up, take your hits, and then move forward.
As long as you wish to keep holding secrets about these abusers and the folks who covered up for them, sooner or later that will become “news”, and you will undo all the positive changes you have done.

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posted April 28, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I always understood that a church or religion was free to operate in the country provided it abides by the law. Lena and the church appear to forget that the first obligation of the church is compliance with the law. They have an obligation to make themselves in compliance firstly through removing all references in their canons to civil matters. Currently if the church chooses to make a law in regards a civil matter the church law is meant to prevail under freedom of religion as in the current scenario. The current fiasco simply permits the church the seeming right and ability to flout the law and to then defend itself until the country submits under a barrage of religious and legal methods employed by the church.
To abide by our would mean that the church must make no law in regards civil matters. It must contain its canons to religious matters only else it is in breach of the ideal of separation and of the law. The law which they have a first obligation to be in compliance with.

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posted April 28, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Their right to operate in the country should be questioned and that right removed if they cannot be in compliance with the law. If their canons hold laws in reference to civil matters they must be in breach of our laws. Church laws must always be subservient to the law of the country in civil matters. The sexual abuse of children, soliciting, determining if authorities should re contacted, determining how to proceed, determining compensation and repair – these are all areas for the civil authorities.
It is whenever civil authorities and governments (perhaps) unwittingly conspires to put church law before civil law that initiates corruption of our secular system.
How can a church law over a civil matter be such an issue when the church has no right to make laws in regards civil matters.

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posted April 29, 2010 at 11:10 am

The New York Times and other western media are bringing in irrational cover-up allegations against the Pope which could be rated as tabloid level journalism. Well people like Jeff Anderson and others who shed crocodile tears on these abuses are misusing the suffering of others to forward their anti-catholic agenda of secularism and atheism and or to get fame. Well I challenge them to take the case of paedophilia elsewhere and help the poor and abused children.
Look at this report ‘Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft reports that 6-10 percent of public school students have been molested in recent years some 290,000 between 1991 and 2000. According to other recent studies, 2 percent of sex abuse offenders were Catholic priests.’
Yes it is true that the church is not a mere organisation and should do more on this. What I would like you to note is that the Church is not only in Western Europe or USA it is all over the world. And the attempt to destroy the Church is simple wishful thinking.

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posted April 29, 2010 at 12:32 pm

“Yes it is true that the church is not a mere organisation and should do more on this. What I would like you to note is that the Church is not only in Western Europe or USA it is all over the world.”
Yes, and we are seeing that abuse and cover-up in the church is indeed international in scope.
It’s funny how the Church and its defenders have only become concerned about abuse in schools and elsewhere when thing started heating up for them in the Church. Convenient, isn’t it?

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robert c

posted April 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm

With all due respect, that is a crock. No perspective is offered to the comments attacking the church here. Lena is absolutely correct in his statements explaining church structure and canon law. Furthermore, the constitutional right to freedom of religion bars civil interference in canon law. In the meantime, if those abused report their circumstances to civil authorities, then it becomes only the churches role to support any prosecutorial action. In many cases the civil prosecutors have declined to prosecute. As far as laicization, should anyone care about the process or how long it takes as long as the facts are in the hands of civil authorities?

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Little Bear

posted April 29, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Sorry, but the Catholic Church is the only organization on this earth that claims that it was founded by Christ, that it is guided by the Holy Spirit throughout all centuries and that it has a leader (the pope) who is infallible in matters of faith and doctrine. No nation, business, social organizations, or humanitarian organizations (like the Red Cross) make that claim.
They are therefore, OBLIGATED, to model, to demonstrate the highest of human standards. If their governance structure is the reason for lapses in justice—then in the name of God (whom they claim to serve), they have the responsibility to rectify the problem. And it needs to be done quickly, not in the next century.

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robert c

posted April 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Ummm let me see…..wrong. The Dalai Lama is selected by a roving tribunal of monks who consult with the Nechung Oracle as they search for the Lama’s reincarnation, or yangsi yang srid. High Lamas visit the holy lake, called Lhamo La-tso, in central Tibet and watch for a sign from Palden Lhamo, the female guardian spirit of the sacred lake itself. This may be either a vision or some indication of the direction in which to search. Islamic Grand Ayatollahs are empowered by Allah to issue their own edicts, or fatawahs, and can act as a civil judge over anyone. The Shia classify them as living saints empowered by the Word of God. Japanese Shinto was formalized centuries ago as the state religion and the Imperial Ministry of Divinities ( alter the Ministry of Religion) dictated practices to legitimize the rule of the Imperial family, who were descended from the Sun God. “Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus leads the church by revealing his will to the President of the Church, whom they sustain as a modern-day prophet, seer, and revelator.” The Rosicrucians have a ‘Supreme Magus’, who is the ‘Supreme Autocratic Authority and Imperator for North, Central and South America, the British Commonwealth’ etc, etc. The Coptic Pope is enthroned as “Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist and Holy Apostle.” He is viewed as the Successor of St. Mark the Evangelist, on the Holy Apostolic Throne of the Great City of Alexandria. We won’t even discuss Scientology, or the various Holy Synods governing various orthodox or Protestant denominations.
So you see that singling out the Catholics is highly prejudicial. The same criteria apply to all, as well as each civil state. However, unfortunately, all the above are governed by human beings subject to the frailties and weaknesses we all share, including pomposity.

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posted May 1, 2010 at 2:59 am

I am a 62 year old practicing straight Catholic man. I am just old enough to remember the 1950’s, pre-Vatican II, the golden age of Boy Scouts/Cub Scouts and Catholic priethood. I was both a Boy Scout and an altar boy and I heard or saw no sexual abuse nor did I hear of anyone talk about sexual abuse or know of anyone who knew of any sexual abuse. The only thing I heard was some whispers that prior to my coming into the Boy Scouts there was a problem with one scout master but he was long gone and replaced.
The pastor (“Monsignor R. or Father R.”) at my church was a virtual saint and this was confirmed by some Jesuit visitors.
When I was about 13-14 some of my friends and I understood there were a few men in our settled community (relatively small town) that you should best keep away from. Yes, they were homosexual and ephebophilic / hebephilic. Of these few men some were married some were single. Generally 40ish and had their own relatives in the town and jobs. Nobody arrested them and they went about their business.
I suspect today men like this would not stay in the settled communities they grew up in. In more cosmopolitan settings the next generation of men like this (roughly my generation) moved to other places. In this time period a significant number of them went into the Catholic seminaries for priest training. Many were ordained.
In this time period and after for the priesthood there were a few monstrous pediphilic serial molesters, but most significant abusers would fit the profile as shown in the movie “Doubt” starring Meryl Streep where a new pastor is suspected of something with a new troubled black homosexual-leaning teen. This is the general profile of most of the seriously accused priests. They were not serial pediphilic abusers but hebephiles in the ancient custom of Socrates.
This is now common enough throughout in our society and is now practiced at least casually or occasionally by about 3-4% of all men. Ephebophilic men and willing teen boys that is. And probably about 10% of all American men have had sex sometime with underage girls, and 3-4% are doing it repeatedly. (I know, it is “STATutory rape” because the STATe says it is rape). I do not like it at all but at least I realize that all this can not be prosecuted. Some of course should be prosecuted but most can not be prosecuted.
So this is not the kind of stuff, especially the man-boy teen stuff the police are aggressively fighting, especially if it is reported say 2 years after the fact.
All in all the Church deserves credit for what has been done in the past 15-20 years and alse deserves time to further deal with this. A significant extent this is still a problem in the Catholic priesthood but it is steadily being handled.

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Eli Craig

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:23 am’s done it again. Great read.

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Daishin Sunseri

posted January 24, 2011 at 2:50 am

I am a survivor of abuse by catholic priests when I was a child. Jeffrey Lena has no morals as an attorney. As far as this issue goes, the poe and catholic bishops have lost their moral authority. They ignored complaints, denied allegations, blamed victims, reassigned offenders, failed to report crimes to police, and concealed information. The so-called “church” is anything but a moral institution. You’d think that Mr. Lena would understand this. Very sad.

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