A New York Times red herring

When the New York Times ran a story about the Vatican response to a particularly horrendous case of child sexual abuse by a priest, many observers felt that the Times should have explained a bit more about Jeff Anderson, a primary source for the piece. So, for instance, here is Bill McGurn taking the story's author -- Laurie Goodstein -- to task in a Wall Street Journal column from earlier this month. She'd described Anderson as a lawyer:

What [Goodstein] did not tell readers is that Mr. Anderson isn't just any old lawyer. When it comes to suing the church, he is America's leading plaintiffs attorney. Back in 2002, he told the Associated Press that he'd won more than $60 million in settlements from the church, and he once boasted to a Twin Cities weekly that he's "suing the s--t out of them everywhere." Nor did the Times report another salient fact about Mr. Anderson: He's now trying to sue the Vatican in U.S. federal court.

None of this makes Mr. Anderson wrong or unworthy of quoting. It does make him a much bigger player than the story disclosed. In fact, it's hard to think of anyone with a greater financial interest in promoting the public narrative of a church that takes zero action against abuser priests, with Pope Benedict XVI personally culpable.

Goodstein, for her part, said she didn't have the space to include those details and the New York Times reader editor said that all criticism of the Goodstein piece was unfounded.

This recent CNN story by Dan Gilgoff, profiling Anderson provides more context:

The last month has seen a blizzard of new sex abuse accusations against the Catholic Church from across the United States. Almost all of them -- and the intense media attention they've garnered -- can be traced to one man: a Minnesota lawyer named Jeff Anderson.

Last week, an alleged victim of priest abuse in Wisconsin announced a lawsuit against the Vatican itself. Anderson is representing the alleged victim.

A couple of days earlier, a Mexican man who alleged abuse by a priest years ago filed suit against Mexico's top Catholic cleric in a U.S. court. The plaintiff is another Anderson client.

And throughout April, new documents have come to light suggesting that the current pope may have played down warnings about abusive priests in the United States. Those documents came from Anderson's St. Paul, Minnesota, office.

For decades, Anderson has won settlements from Catholic archdioceses across the country for abuse victims and, more than any other attorney in the country, has driven American media coverage of the church abuse scandal.

Knowing one attorney is the driving force behind an outsize percentage of the abuse cases fleshes out the story and provides some nice context. Since much of the coverage has focused on the hierarchical nature of the Vatican and how that affects its response to the charges, it's important to also be aware that the church's accusers might be part of a more coordinated campaign than meets the eye.

The other interesting thing about the Gilgoff article is that, like any good reporter, he follows the money:

Anderson's firm -- Jeff Anderson & Associates, which employs four other lawyers -- has filed hundreds of sex abuse suits against the church. Though he won't disclose how much he has won in settlements, Anderson is thought to be responsible for a good chunk of the roughly $2.5 billion that, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Catholic Church has paid to sex abuse victims to date.

He was among the lawyers representing abuse victims in the $600 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007, the church's largest payout ever.

I knew the Catholic church had paid out a lot of settlement money, but $2.5 billion? Suing the Catholic church is a lucrative business. Gilgoff writes very fairly -- he isn't suggesting that Anderson's financial incentives have any bearing on the merit of any of cases he's bringing against the church. But the piece does show that understanding possible incentives of everybody involved is crucial.

Gilgoff's article this week sent me scrambling to see what else had been written about Anderson in light of the recent scandals. As it happens, just a few days after Laurie Goodstein's controversial article the Associated Press' Patrick Condon also did a profile of Anderson.

Condon doesn't go into the money issues as much as the Gilgoff did, but he does offer up much more in the way of personal details, providing a good deal of insight insight into Anderson:

"It's not about the money," Anderson told The Associated Press.

The self-described "former atheist" who rediscovered faith in God through his recovery from alcoholism professes a deep empathy with abuse victims -- he calls them "survivors."

More than a decade after his legal battles with church officials began, Anderson's adult daughter revealed that as an 8-year-old she was molested by a therapist she was seeing as Anderson and his first wife were going through a divorce. The therapist, Anderson said, was a former Catholic priest.

Anderson, 62, said the pain of that revelation "brought another dimension to the experience." But he said he concluded years earlier that the responsibility for shuffling around problem priests and covering up their indiscretions would extend to the Vatican.

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"I came to the stark realization that the problems were really endemic to the clerical culture, and all the problems we are having in the U.S. led back to Rome," Anderson said. "And I realized nothing was going to fundamentally change until they did."

For whatever reason, Condon's piece didn't seem to get the attention it deserved when it was released into the firestorm that followed Goodstein's bombshell.

However, the NYT steadfastly ignored the Jeffrey Anderson issue until two weeks ago when the Washington Post had a nice substantive Jeffrey Anderson profile that, among other things, noted Anderson has been a party to 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic church. I guess this was one of the straws that broke the New York Times' back, prompting Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to finally weigh in this past Monday with his blustery defense of Goodstein's decision not to identify Anderson more thoroughly:

Regardless, the issue of whether Anderson has sued the church four times or 1,500 seems to me to be a red herring.

I think Hoyt's red herring here is a red herring in and of itself. Adding some essential context about Anderson would have improved the coverage and upped the fairness quotient. And if Anderson's possible motivations are totally immaterial, why did the Times finally get around to running their own profile of Anderson this week, just a few days after Hoyt's dismissal?

I think it's clear that giving more attention to Anderson from the get go would have shaped the New York Times' coverage of the scandal for the better and helped them side step a lot of the criticism they received. It's a shame that the paper's ombudsman won't cede this obvious point.

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