06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two Lawyers, Two Styles, Two Sides: One Catholic Church

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

(RNS) To victims' advocate Jeff Anderson, the Vatican is Nixon, the clergy sex abuse scandal is Watergate, and he's the legal version of Woodward and Bernstein, gradually linking the cover-up to the highest levels of authority.

For opposing counsel Jeffrey Lena, serving as the Vatican's U.S. attorney is a lot like being a history professor: abuse lawsuits against his client present "teaching moments" that require a patient explanation of the intricacies of canon law and church structure to courtrooms, rather than classrooms.

Lena, 51, is a bookish solo practitioner who answers his own phone and avoids cameras; Anderson, 62, courts publicity to expose predatory priests and their protectors, with a righteous anger honed over three decades of representing hundreds of victims in lawsuits against the church.

"Our styles and strategies are diametrically opposed, legally and morally," Anderson said.

"I have an approach that's emotional and intense, motivated by the pain and suffering of the victims and their families. His approach is intellectual and detached, and his clients are more interested in keeping things confidential and secret."

Other than their first names and their shared profession, it would appear these adversaries--currently pitted against each other in two abuse-related lawsuits--have little else in common. Yet each could make a case for being a kind of David to the other's Goliath, striving to help unpopular clients get treated fairly.

Lena, from the tiny northern California office where he specializes in sovereign immunity law, first defended the Vatican in a Holocaust claims suit about 10 years ago when larger firms declined to take such cases. Anderson built his Minnesota law firm by taking on the church in the early 1980s, representing abuse cases that were unheard of, at the time, and had exceeded the criminal statute of limitations.

Both men also prefer to be their own bosses and have based their practices within walking distance of their alma maters_ William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul for Anderson; the University of California at Berkeley for Lena.

And, despite their increasingly combative positions, both say they truly respect each other.

"His legal theories and use of the media strike me as exaggerated, but he's a formidable opponent and has always conducted himself in a professional manner in the courtroom and in private discussions," Lena said of Anderson.

The attorneys first faced off in John V. Doe v. Holy See, a 2002 Oregon lawsuit that's currently pending possible Supreme Court review over whether the Vatican, as a sovereign state, can be sued for acts committed by America's Catholic clergy.

The two men again find themselves on opposite sides of John Doe 16 v. Holy See, which Anderson filed in Milwaukee on April 22 on behalf of an alleged victim of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, the priest accused of abusing hundreds of boys at a school for the deaf between 1950 and 1974.

The Wisconsin case accuses Pope Benedict XVI and other senior Vatican officials of turning a blind eye to the Murphy matter. In a rare public statement, Lena called the case "completely without merit" and "an attempt to use tragic events as a platform for a broader attack."

As with the Oregon case, Lena contends the Vatican did not learn of the abuse until years after it had occurred--in this case, not until shortly before Murphy's death in 1998.

The Catholic Church's organizational structure does not give the Vatican authority over administrative matters, Lena said, even in cases involving abusive priests. Local bishops are in charge of handling their affairs independently, as if the dioceses were independent corporations.

"If there's an abusive teacher in the Berkeley public schools, I'm going to take it up with the school district, not with Gov. Schwarzenegger, much less the president of the United States," Lena said, explaining why Vatican officials should not be named in American complaints.

It's the kind of justification that deeply angers Anderson. After three decades of specializing in abuse claims, he's convinced the Vatican must be held responsible for the actions of its clergy--both directly as the supreme authority in its hierarchical structure, and indirectly by continuing to promote bishops who participated in the cover-ups.

"All roads lead to Rome," he said.

In his cases against the Holy See, Anderson wants to question the pope himself, especially for decisions made when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in charge of disciplinary matters.

"This is a pure hierarchy, with the papacy at the top," Anderson said. "Only the Vatican has the power to defrock a priest. They can say otherwise, but it's just propaganda."

Mark Chopko, a Washington-based defense attorney who has worked on cases with Lena and against Anderson, says the men are well suited to their ongoing and upcoming legal battles.

"Jeff Anderson is very flamboyant in his public persona, and he's not afraid to tell you what he thinks," said Chopko, who served as chief counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when the abuse scandal erupted in 2002. "Jeff Lena is more private, more reserved. It's not his style to try something in the public arena."

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law expert assisting Anderson on several cases, including those against the Holy See, said her colleague is certainly more "passionate" than Lena, but their distinct approaches are inevitable, given their choice of clients.

"Anyone representing the Holy See in this type of litigation will be focused on how to separate the Holy See from the rest of what's going on. Anyone representing a foreign sovereign would be taking the exact same position," said Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in New York.

There's something else both Anderson and Lena can agree on: they would prefer the public's attention be focused on the victims, rather than their legal maneuvers.

"A tribute is due to the courage of those who came forward to report abuse," Lena said. "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."