“Greg” walked into Jeff Anderson’s St. Paul office one day in 1983 and began telling a story that was then virtually unheard of: He’d been raped by a priest as a child.
Father Thomas Adamson was the culprit, Greg said, a priest who would eventually admit to abusing children throughout his 30-year career. Greg couldn’t turn to the police, his family, or his church so he sought Anderson’s help. Over the next 30 years, starting with Greg’s case, Anderson won a series of devastating lawsuits against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, making a career out of outing priests for their misdeeds.
Partly as a result of that dogged pursuit, criminal charges were filed last week against the archdiocese, an unthinkable development to victims of abuse that span the better part of four decades. But it all started that day in 1983, with a man named Greg whose true identity Anderson has protected to this day.
“I went to the police and they said they couldn’t do anything because of the statute of limitations,” Anderson said, recounting his first foray into the murky legal territory of clergy sexual abuse. “Then I went to the archdiocese and asked them what they were going to do. They said ‘Nothing,’ so I sued them.”
What now seems like common knowledge in 1983 was anything but. Still, the attorney’s legal maneuvering was effective enough to force the hand of the archdiocese. About a year after Anderson first met Greg, the pair had a glut of documents in their possession that listed priests who were repeat sexual offenders and administrators who were complicit in the cover-up.
“They came to me with a settlement of $1 million,” Anderson recalls. “But it came with a condition: They said, ‘Usually in these cases we have you sign a confidentiality agreement.’”
“Wait a minute. Usually?”
Greg turned down the settlement and chose to pursue his abuser in court. Father Adamson escaped criminal accountability for his actions, which included his self-admitted abuse of boys from 1961 to 1984. The only thing that prompted his removal from the priesthood were the lawsuits coming out of Anderson’s office. It was a good start, Anderson said, but still not enough justice for the victims.
Since then there have been hundreds of depositions—priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals—and at least a few of Adamson himself.
If you’re interested in seeing the face of a man who used his position of authority as leverage over the most vulnerable among us, there is Adamson, wearing a sweater vest and drinking a Diet Coke as Anderson forces him to admit he used vibrators on young boys.
There Adamson is admitting he sometimes ejaculated on them, saying how it began with masturbation and became oral sex.
There Adamson is refusing to say how many victims there were during his three decades as a clerical-collar criminal.
If that seems like too much, like a lawyer taking a victory lap after defeating an already defeated old man, know that Adamson doesn’t think he should have ever served jail time for raping children.
After that there were more priests, too many to name. But the biggest was Father James Porter, who, unlike Adamson, provided an estimate of the children he molested. Over the span of a 30-year career, Porter admitted to abusing more than 100 boys. With the Porter and Adamson cases, Anderson was able to prove that the actions of the church were a “nuisance,” a legal distinction that allowed the attorney to question priests in depositions over the years. It still wasn’t enough.
With the statute of limitations for sex crimes preventing new legal cases from being brought forth, Anderson and others sought to convince legislators to change the law. In 2013, they succeeded with the passage of the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which lifted the statute of limitations, allowing for new civil cases to be filed. Thanks to that breakthrough, and the previous decades of lawsuits that preceded it, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis declared bankruptcy this year, freezing a few civil cases on its docket. Then last week, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis announced criminal charges against the archdiocese, specifically that its leaders failed to protect the children under their care.
That’s still not enough for Anderson.
“Heat and light. And public shame and the crucible of the courtroom. That’s what it’ll take.”
If you’re looking for a powerful tale of redemption, of victim becoming survivor, you’ll have to look up Anderson’s clients. For the lawyer there is no compelling personal history to speak of. One day, a man walked into Anderson’s office and said he’d been wronged. It turns out the man was right, and there were many more just like him. Everything that has occurred since then is simply a matter of work. Anderson just happens to believe that what he does is a higher calling.
“We’re on the side of light and they’re not.”