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April 19, 2010 6:16 PM

Meet the Pope's Go-To U.S. Lawyer

Posted by Brian Baxter

The Vatican's counsel of choice isn't a partner at some Am Law 200 shop, but a solo practitioner in Berkeley, Calif. In recent weeks, Jeffrey Lena increasingly has served as unofficial spokesman and strategist for the Vatican in the U.S..

The Associated Press reports that Lena increasingly is acting as unofficial spokesman and strategist for the Holy See here in the U.S. But Lena, 51, is not interested in the added attention the assignment carries. Worried about threats against himself and his family, he declined to be photographed for the story and has moved his small office to an undisclosed location in Berkeley.

"Two weeks ago I was a lawyer minding my own cases," Lena told the AP in an exclusive interview published Saturday. "That's not what's happening now."

Aside from the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal that has since spread beyond the U.S., the Vatican also has had to contend with litigation brought by Holocaust survivors accusing its bank of stashing millions in valuables stolen by Nazi sympathizers. (The Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling dismissing that suit in December.)

Lena told the AP that when he went looking for cocounsel in the suit filed by Holocaust survivors, many larger firms were wary about wading in on the defense side in such a controversial case.

"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," Lena told the AP. "That annoyed me."

How did Lena land the assignment for the Vatican in the first place? The lawyer offers few details. He told The Washington Post that he became counsel through "academic and professional associations in Italy."

The Washington Post reports that while enrolled at the University of California's Hastings College of Law, Lena became friends with professor Ugo Mattei, currently the chair of international and comparative law at Hastings. Mattei claims he helped Lena transfer to Berkeley's law school and later helped put him in touch with Vatican officials when Lena was teaching in Italy, according to The Washington Post.

But the two men have since had a falling out, and The Washington Post has cast doubt on whether Mattei's a legitimate link between Lena and the Vatican, given Mattei's connections to antireligious Italian communists and a book he coauthored with Ralph Nader's sister.

Other anonymous sources told both the AP and The Washington Post that Franzo Grande Stevens, a well-regarded Italian lawyer and of counsel with Grande Stevens Studio Legale, helped put Lena in touch with Vatican authorities. (Grande Stevens was a longtime lawyer for late Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli.)

Whatever the root of Lena's relationship with Church officials, the Vatican's various legal entanglements have required a consistent legal presence in the U.S.

Mark Chopko, a former general counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and now chair of the nonprofit and religious organizations practice at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young in Washington, D.C., told The Washington Post that Lena was hired because Vatican officials in Rome realized they needed a commercial litigator on the ground stateside. (Click here for a Q&A with Chopko about his own work for the Church.)

Lena's appointment as lead counsel to the Vatican has ruffled some feathers among lawyers doing defense work for dioceses confronting sex abuse charges. "It was not jealousy. More a feeling of 'how could there be somebody out there who had this expertise and we had never heard of him?'" James Geoly, a partner at Chicago's Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella and cocounsel to the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the AP. "But very quickly [Lena] established himself with all the major diocesan attorneys of the U.S. and they know and respect him highly."

Plaintiffs' lawyers have been similarly impressed.

Jeff Anderson, founder of a noted St. Paul, Minn.-based plaintiffs firm that specializes in sex abuse cases against the church, told the AP that when he first went up against the Vatican he was expecting to face off against a "white-gloved, blue-blood" corporate firm.

"He's not a big shot in a big firm, but he's a formidable lawyer," Anderson said. "He's quite an effective adversary."

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