Earlier this year we featured St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates, who has been bringing clergy sex abuse suits against the Catholic Church since 1983, on the cover of Minnesota Super Lawyers. Anderson yesterday filed the first civil suit in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. He’s representing a 29-year-old man who claims he was abused more than 100 times by the coach between 1992 and 1996. Anderson spoke to us this morning about how he became involved in the case, what these cases say about institutions and us, and when he’ll be willing to commend Penn State. Here is an excerpt from that discussion.
SL: When did you get involved in the Penn State case?
Anderson: I’ve been representing survivors of abuse across the country for many years, so I get calls across the country. I got the first call two weeks ago, right after the grand jury report got released.
his particular call that caused us to bring suit yesterday in Philadelphia just came in–actually it kind of trickled in, anonymously at first–and then he felt the courage to make contact, and then I was able to just last week solidify that contact and bridge the trust so he could really disclose enough for me to know there was criminal sexual conduct. That enabled me to realize that I had to meet with him, which I did–I met with him the day before yesterday. After meeting him, I realized how serious it was, and how much we could help him and protect him at the same time, and then I facilitated immediate contact with the appropriate law enforcement agencies investigating it. He said, “I really want to do something, because I don’t want to live with this torment about having not spoken up and other kids having been hurt,” and I said, “Well, there is something you can do.”
With a real sense of urgency, we put together the lawsuit and filed it yesterday morning in Philadelphia, called a press conference and tried to create the message around it that needs to be heard and listened to and learned, and that is the question, first why have so many people, from the highest position at Penn State down to the charity [Sandusky volunteered for], for so long failed to heed, see or act on any of the reports made that Sandusky was a peril to the children? And why did they then choose to protect the reputation of the institution over the well-being of the children?
That question is easy to ask. The answer is very painful. It really reflects on them and it reflects on all of us. In my view, we have a clear tendency to defer to the most powerful individuals among us, to defer to the most powerful institutions, and [we] make choices, oftentimes, to gravitate to the power, the influence, the money, and our loyalties lie there; and we ignore the signs and the symptoms of children being harmed. It is a parallel to systemic failures and cover-ups that we have seen across the nation–most prominently in the Catholic Church, but certainly in many other institutions, from the Boy Scouts to a number of youth organizations. It is a striking and dramatic and systematic concealment and failure, and it has created a lightening rod for awareness and discussion and real opportunity out of this painful tragedy; for some real light and heat to put on the topic, which was what we intended to do yesterday and intend to do every day in some way, and then try to learn and teach the hard lessons. We all have to one: be trained and vigilant; two: we have to develop public policy that mandates reporting; and three: we have to repeal and/or remove the laws that protect the offenders and those who protect them, such as statutes of limitations.
We really have to vigilantly commit ourselves and our resources to all of those things–to protect children the way we commit ourselves to recreation and the development of athletes and the winning of football games. And if Penn State, as an example, devotes a fraction of its resources to child protection that it does to winning football games, they could be a model: they could be a model for child protection; they could be a model for education of students, faculties and administrators, in detecting the signs and protecting the kids instead of working and operating in solidarity and loyalty to powerful men and powerful interests.
That’s what this is really about: to protect children the way we commit ourselves to recreation and the development of athletes and the winning of football games, and if Penn State, as an example, devotes a fraction of its resources to child protection that it does to winning football games, they could be a model, they could be a model for child protection, they could be a model for education of students, faculties and administrators, in detecting the signs and protecting the kids instead of working and operating in solidarity and loyalty to powerful men and powerful interests, and that’s what this is really about.
SL: Do you think you be getting more calls now that this one man has come forward?
Anderson: There had already been a number of folks [coming forward], and there are others that I expect will continue to be coming forward. To some, that seems like bad news. But to us it is good news because the public attention around this creates anxiety and awareness and among survivors who are suffering in silence and secrecy. It really does motivate them to do something more and gives them a chance to break the silence the way this guy did.
So we do get a lot of calls; we have a lot of people fielding a lot of calls in all of our offices across the country, a lot of advocates and professionals and lawyers, myself included, fielding these calls, and there has been a real uptick becasue of Penn State.
SL: At this stage, is Penn State doing what needs to be done?
Anderson: Actions speak louder than words. Where I see action and commitment, I commend action and commitment. Because words don’t protect kids.
So when they implement the National Child Protection Training Center training protocol, here in Minnesota, nationwide training people, you’ll hear me commending them. When I see them developing child protection curriculum as both majors and minors in Penn State as a graduate and an undergraduate curriculum, I will commend them. When I see them devoting a fraction of the resources for child protection and awareness that they devote to winning football games and raising money–a $2 billion endowment, by the way–I will commend them. And when I see them take actions that are authentically dedicated to child protection and doing better, I will commend them. And when I see them take actions that are authentically dedicated to child protection and doing better, I will commend them. Until I see actions, I have the words that have been spoken and I am waiting.
To hear Anderson speak about statutes of limitations and this issue, please go here: