Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning announcement Monday that he plans to resign after almost eight years as pontiff brought renewed attention to the sex abuse litigation and related legal maneuverings that have roiled the Roman Catholic Church over the course of the past decade.
In voluntarily stepping down as head of the Holy See, the 85-year-old, German-born Benedict becomes the first pope to make such a move since Gregory XII in 1415. Upon relinquishing the Catholic Church’s highest office, Benedict will revert to his former title, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Benedict—who was elected the 265th pope by the College of Cardinals in April 2005 after a papal conclave was convened following Pope John Paul II’s death that same month—cited his advanced age and lingering health problems as the main reasons for his decision to give up his position as leader of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. (Click here for video of Benedict’s resignation speech and here for his resignation letter.)
"It’s a historic, somewhat unprecedented move," says Jeff Anderson of Minneapolis-based Jeff Anderson & Associates, who has represented sex abuse victims in litigation against the Catholic Church since 1983. "And I think we’re indebted to the survivors who have put pressure on the hierarchy and the papacy."
Benedict, a fierce critic of capitalism, has during his tenure as pope become a lightning rod for those upset by the Church’s handling of accusations that current and former priests and lay employees sexually abused minors.
While the sex abuse scandal first made major headlines in this country thanks to a 2002 Boston Globe investigation, other stories detailing decades of unpunished abuse subsequently emerged in cities across the country before going global. The Republic of Ireland, a staunch bastion of Catholicism, saw its own government release the damning Cloyne Report in 2011—an exhaustive, 421-page document that recounts the failure of Church officials to report cases of sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
Anderson, who spoke with The American Lawyer in 2011 about the nearly 30 years he has spent in the legal trenches doing battle with the Church on behalf of sex victims, has in recent years sought to implicate the Vatican and the pope himself in litigation filed in U.S. courts.
Anderson also represents a group of deaf plaintiffs suing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee over its longtime employment of a pedophile priest who abused more than 200 children, which is the subject of a new HBO documentary by Alex Gibney called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Anderson credits his clients in that case with eventually bringing to light the once-taboo subject of childhood sex abuse in the Church. "They first filed suit in the 1970s, long before I got involved," Anderson adds. "We have a duty to protect those that are the most vulnerable among us."
As The New York Times reported in 2010, the Milwaukee case uncovered documents showing that Benedict, then known as Cardinal Ratzinger in his role presiding over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a Vatican office that arose out of the Inquisition), was sent two letters in 1996 about the pedophile priest who is a key figure in Gibney’s documentary.
But files unearthed by Anderson in his litigation with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee do not include any response from Ratzinger to those letters—or proof that he even read them. The priest in question died in 1998 without being charged with a crime, despite reams of evidence—and even the admission of local Church officials—showing him to be a serial abuser of children. (Gibney, who spoke with The Daily Beast last week about his documentary, notes in the film that Ratzinger did take steps to punish some abusers whom he felt had disgraced the priesthood, but faced entrenched Vatican interests that thwarted some of those efforts.)
Anderson, who currently represents about 350 plaintiffs pressing sex abuse claims against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, decries what he calls the "protracted process" the Vatican employs to avoid disclosing information about serial abusers to "police and parishioners." As part of that process, he says, the Church has tried to "stem the tide of disclosure" by having troubled U.S. dioceses file for bankruptcy.
Citing an inability to pay claims and legal bills stemming from mounting sex abuse–related liabilities, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee became the eighth U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy in January 2011. At least a-half-dozen firms are advising the archdiocese in its ongoing Chapter 11 case, according to our previous reports. (Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the former head of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, took over the powerful Archdiocese of New York in February 2009.)
Bankruptcy court filings in Milwaukee show that Wisconsin firm Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek has billed the archdiocese for roughly $4.4 million in fees and expenses through its role as lead counsel to the debtor. Quarles & Bray, a Milwaukee-based Am Law 200 firm that is acting as special counsel to the archdiocese, has accrued $186,914 in fees for its work through October of last year.
Quarles & Brady—who The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2011 had become the "go-to firm" for dioceses seeking insolvency as a result of mounting sex abuse–related liabilities—also advised the Diocese of Tucson on its bankruptcy filing in 2004, the Diocese of San Diego on its Chapter 11 filing in 2007, and the Diocese of Fairbanks as it began reorganization proceedings in bankruptcy court in 2008.
Susan Boswell, chair of Quarles & Brady’s national bankruptcy and business reorganization practice, was out of the office Monday and unavailable for immediate comment. She joined the firm in 2000 after it merged with her Phoenix-based regional firm Streich Lang.
"We frequently face off against large law firms that employ scorched-earth litigation tactics," says Anderson, noting that the hundreds of plaintiffs he represents across the country include 250 in Los Angeles, where the local archdiocese reached a $660 million settlement with more than 500 victims in 2007. (The deal yielded a 40 percent cut in attorney fees for about three dozen plaintiffs’ firms, including Anderson’s, according to a report at the time by sibling publication The National Law Journal.)
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles came under fire last week for releasing allegedly incomplete internal records on priests accused of sexually abusing children as part of that settlement. A lead lawyer for the archdiocese, McKool Smith partner J. Michael Hennigan, said publicly that the omissions were most likely the result of clerical errors rather than outright deception. (Hennigan merged his Los Angeles bankruptcy boutique with McKool Smith in 2011.)
Anderson says his hardest challenge in pressing his clients’ claims is gaining access to Church records that are shielded by what he calls the Vatican’s "protocol of secrecy." As a sovereign state, the Vatican has claimed it is protected from litigation filed in U.S. courts by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
For its part, despite all the Am Law 200 firepower available to defend it in the United States, the Vatican has turned to Berkeley, California–based solo practitioner Jeffrey Lena as its spokesman and official legal representative in this country, as noted by The Am Law Daily in 2010.
Lena told The Am Law Daily via email Monday that "it is still the case that I represent the Holy See in cases" filed in the U.S. He was unavailable for further comment about his status as the Vatican’s outside counsel of choice. (Lena did release a statement to The Associated Press on Monday calling a U.S. suit filed against Benedict in 2010 accusing him of covering up instances of abuse when he was cardinal as being nothing more than a "ludicrous publicity stunt and misuse of international judicial processes.")
Lena’s role on behalf of the Holy See aside, there remains enough Church-related litigation in the U.S. to keep more than a few large firms busy in state and federal courts.
Last month a Philadelphia jury convicted both a priest and a former parochial school teacher of molesting the same middle school student in one of the city’s first prosecutions of Church officials for sexually abusing parishioners, according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer. Michael J. McGovern, of counsel at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, represented the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, who was convicted of indecent assault and endangering the welfare of a child. The case went to trial earlier this year.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which employed Engelhardt, is the target of civil cases accusing it of covering up incidents of sexual abuse. The Legal Intelligencer reported last year that the archdiocese’s longtime outside counsel at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young has been accused of concealing certain Church documents.
Mark Chopko, chair of the nonprofit and religious organizations practice at Stradley in Washington, D.C., previously served as general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Chopko, who spoke with The Am Law Daily several years ago about his practice, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Some former Catholic priests accused of abuse have used the courts to fight back. Last year a monsignor filed a libel suit against the Archdiocese of New York in federal court in Manhattan after he was defrocked over sex abuse claims. Kelley Drye & Warren partner John Callagy—the firm’s immediate past chair—and partner Nicholas Panarella are representing the archdiocese in the suit.