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 specialty in comparative 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.
Those 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 he went 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 an unused coffee pot and Nilla wafers on the shelves.
‘His heart is moved’
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.
Law degree in hand but with little litigation experience, 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 in San Francisco, 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 comment other than to say Grande Stevens was a model.
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.