AP Exclusive: How the pope got his US lawyer

Pope Benedict XVI and Malta's President George Abela listen to national anthems as they meet in La Valletta's international airport, Malta, Saturday, April 17, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI and Malta's President George Abela listen to national anthems as they meet in La Valletta's international airport, Malta, Saturday, April 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press Writer / April 17, 2010

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VATICAN CITY—The Vatican has long let cardinals or its official spokesmen do its talking when scandal hits.

But as the Vatican reels from a swirling clerical sex abuse crisis, the Holy See has turned to an unusual advocate: a tennis-loving, Saab-driving solo practitioner from Berkeley, Calif., whose obscure interest in sovereign immunity law and fluency in Italian landed him the job of the pope's U.S. lawyer.

Jeffrey Lena's studied yet creative approach to defending the Vatican in U.S. abuse lawsuits has influenced the Vatican's new public message as he is increasingly called on to act as Rome's unofficial U.S. spokesman and strategist.

In an exclusive interview Saturday with The Associated Press, Lena conceded he never thought he'd be the Vatican's lawyer much less it's very public messenger.

"Two weeks ago I was a lawyer minding my own cases. That's not what's happening now," Lena said.

Still, the 51-year-old former history professor avoids the limelight. He declined to be photographed for this profile, citing security and privacy concerns for his wife and son. He says he has received threats because of his advocacy for the Holy See and has moved his three-person law office to an undisclosed location in Berkeley.

The threats stem from the controversial nature of the cases brought against the Vatican in the U.S. over the past 10 years: before the clerical abuse lawsuits targeting the Holy See, Lena defended cases in which the Vatican bank was accused of stashing Nazi loot.

Lena recalls that when looking for co-counsel to represent the Vatican bank, several large firms declined because they didn't want to defend a Holocaust claims suit.

"It deepened in me a sense of the importance of defense work when you could have effectively prominent law firms refuse to serve a client because they thought it was too controversial for their bottom line -- that it might affect their image. That annoyed me."

So Lena agreed to go solo -- albeit with some help. An initial collaboration with law professor Ugo Mattei broke off. Lena now works with two main allies in a two-room, nondescript office near the University of California, Berkeley, campus with law books, an unused coffee pot and Nilla wafers on the shelves.

Their latest project: defend Pope Benedict XVI against allegations that he personally, and the Vatican generally, turned a blind eye to decades of rapes and molestation of children by priests. The Vatican has vehemently denied such reports, saying the pope has done more than anyone to root out abusers.

"What is most important for people to know is that he does understand, that his heart is moved," Lena said. "He has seen the files, he gets it, and indeed he got it long before most others did."

Though raised in a Catholic family, religious conviction doesn't seem to fuel Lena's defense. He notes that no one at the Vatican ever asked about his faith.

Lena grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 70s, the third son of second-generation Italian/Irish immigrants. His father was a public school teacher and his mother was a social worker. They prized books and open discussions as well as roll-up-your sleeves manual labor.

"I did grow up in a family in which intellectual work was admired and physical work was expected," he said, alluding to his lifelong interest in building and renovating houses.

After graduating with honors from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Lena entered Berkeley's history Ph.D. program in 1984. He completed everything but his dissertation before being drawn to the law after helping his father in a messy family estate problem.

He spent a year of law school studying at the University of Milan where he discovered comparative law, how ideas circulate among different legal systems. It would be key to his later work defending the Holy See, with its own juridical system and canon law, in U.S. courts.

Lena was teaching contracts at the University of Turin in 2000 when he was asked to submit his advice on a clamorous lawsuit that had just been filed near his hometown in San Francisco.

Holocaust survivors from Croatia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia had filed suit against the Vatican bank, alleging that it accepted millions of dollars of their valuables stolen by Nazi sympathizers.

Just who asked Lena to take on the case? All roads point to Franzo Grande Stevens, one of Italy's best-known and respected attorneys, dubbed "l'avvocato del'Avvocato" -- the attorney of the late Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli.

Grande Stevens was also the lawyer for the Vatican bank, formally known as the Institute of Religious Works, and the lawyer for the Vatican City state.

Grande Stevens didn't respond to e-mail requests for comment and Lena declined to say if Stevens made the request.

But in a letter to La Stampa newspaper last week, Grande Stevens channeled virtually all of Lena's key defense strategies in the U.S. sex abuse cases to complain about a profile the paper had run on Lena's main U.S. adversary, Jeff Anderson.

The Holocaust claims suit against the Vatican bank was dismissed in December after an appeals court upheld the bank's immunity under the foreign sovereign immunities act, one of at least 12 published federal decisions Lena has won in the area of sovereign immunity.

Given Lena's past, his newfound role as public defender of the pope causes some pause among his friends, who describe him as a reserved history grad student Berkeley with a "playful" intellect who can deconstruct ideas with ease.

"I do think with some people think he's gone to the dark side," said Maura O'Connor, an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati who met Lena in 1985. "The emotional reaction is he's defending this. But he's not. ... If the Vatican is needing legal advice, he's giving it."

The Vatican's selection of the unknown and untested Lena ruffled some feathers among the small coterie of U.S. attorneys -- most of them Catholics at big law firms -- who were representing dioceses in sex abuse lawsuits.

"It was not jealousy. More a feeling 'how could there be somebody out there who had this expertise and we had never heard of him?'" said James Geoly, attorney for the archdiocese of Chicago who is representing a defendant in an Oregon suit naming the Holy See.

"There was definitely a 'getting to know you' period. But very quickly Jeff established himself with all the major diocesan attorneys of the U.S. and they know him and respect him highly," he said.

So do Lena's opponents.

Anderson, who is suing the Holy See in Oregon, said he expected the Vatican would have hired a "white-gloved, blue blood," corporate firm.

"He's not a bigshot in a big firm but he's a formidable lawyer," he said.

Victims' attorney Kelly Clark went up against Lena in a deposition of Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of Portland, Oregon, and now a top Vatican official. Levada was asked to testify in a 2006 deposition to attorneys handling dozens of lawsuits against the archdiocese claiming abuse by Oregon priests.

Clark had few complaints about the deposition, but said he was surprised by all the "interference" thrown up by Lena prior to the deposition to limit what could be asked. Since Levada is an official of a foreign sovereign, he enjoys immunity as an official.

In the end, the judge limited Levada's testimony to his time in Portland.

"The problem was that ignored a very real legal theory that we were pushing which was that institutional knowledge of the child abuse problem can't realistically be limited to diocese by diocese knowledge," Clark said. "You have to be able to say what did the institution as a whole know."

Lawyers for victims charge that Rome mandated policies to keep abuse secret.

Lena said the judge was correct because she recognized that dioceses are independent of the Holy See.

"The pope is not a five-star general ordering troops around," Lena said. "Diocesan bishops are not agents or vicars of the pope at all. A bishop's authority comes from his office. It is the bishop who controls his diocese and what happens."