Pope Benedict

An unassuming Berkeley man has emerged at the center of the Vatican’s unfolding clerical sex abuse scandals.

Jeffrey S. Lena, whom the Associated Press describes as “a tennis-loving, Saab-driving solo practitioner from Berkeley“, is the Vatican’s go-to guy on matters concerning sexual abuse of parishioners by priests.

Lena, 51, who works out of a small law office on Keith Avenue above Codornices Park, has repeatedly argued, generally successfully, that the Vatican’s sovereign status gives its immunity from lawsuits around priests who abuse children. But as more people step forward to claim priests abused them, and more blame is heaped on the Vatican for its slow response to the crisis, Lena is at the center of a growing vortex of lawsuits.

He is “defending Pope Benedict XVI from a deposition motion in a Kentucky case involving child abuse by clergy,” according to the Washington Post. “He is arguing in a suit before the Supreme Court that the Vatican cannot be tried for transferring a predatory priest from Ireland to Oregon. In Mississippi, he is defending the Vatican against accusations that it participated in a money-laundering scheme. In New York, Lena is defending the Holy See in a commercial-licensing dispute about the use of images belonging to the Vatican Museums.”

Lena, who grew up Catholic in Berkeley, lives in the Berkeley Hills with his wife and son in a house that had no television six months ago, according to the Washington Post. Lena got his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz and studied for a PhD at UC Berkeley, where he completed all his coursework but did not write a dissertation. His law degree is from Hastings College of the Law.

Lena’s wife is Italian and he eventually went to teach at the University of Turin where he met the lawyers who introduced him to the church hierarchy. Lena’s first case for the Vatican was in 2000, and he helped defend the Vatican from a lawsuit filed by Holocaust survivors from Croatia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. They claimed that the Vatican bank accepted millions of dollars of their valuables stolen by Nazi sympathizers. The Vatican eventually prevailed in the case.

Lena is not comfortable with his newfound fame.

“Two weeks ago I was a lawyer minding my own cases,” Lena told the Associated Press. “That’s not what’s happening now.”

Lena declined to be photographed for the AP’s article, saying he has received threats because of his advocacy for the Vatican. Lena told the AP he has moved his small law office to an undisclosed location in Berkeley.

When the Washington Post caught up with Lena last week, he was trying to cut out caffeine. He looked very tired.

“Puffy bags hung under Lena’s brown eyes on Wednesday morning as he ordered an herbal pomegranate tea at a Washington coffee shop,” wrote a reporter for the Washington Post. “With waves of salt-and-pepper hair, a workman’s build, unclipped fingernails and an outfit of plaid flannel shirt, bluejeans, Lena doesn’t look the part of advocate for the supreme pontiff of the universal church, prince of the apostles and vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth.”

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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  1. I would love to know why Jeffery S. Lena, in Berkeley ,Ca. defends the Pope and Vatican. Is he retained by the Vatican? If he is, I can understand why. Then my only question would be, how can he live with himself knowing everything the Pope, the Cardinal’s, and the Bishop’s and everybody else involved in the sexual abuse scandal have done and continue to do just because the law has protected them. What kind of person can justify to himself, that what he is doing, is something he just has to do or his family would starve. Or he will lose his home. Or there are threats against his life or a member of his family. What could it be? I just can’t image anyone voluntarily helping an organization so corrupt and willing to accept his life as being OK.

  2. Let us recall that it was devout Christians packing the trains with Jews destined for the ovens of Auschwitz.

  3. As a legal colleague who faced Jeff on the Vatican Bank – Holocaust case, I give him credit as a tough contender for a totally corrupt client. The Vatican is guilty of complicity in genocide, sex abuse, and money laundering – immunity is a poor defence for an entity that claims to be the universal epicenter of morals.

  4. If the Pope’s priests rape your girl or boy, that must be OK because he is the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Josef Ratzinger and his priests can do whatever they want with impunity, and Jeffrey Lena is going to make it all legal and block your right to justice against them. That’s not right.

  5. Folks might perhaps be interested that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, their allegedly quite skilled counsel and other supporters are making an effort to have His Holiness arrested should he in fact make a planned visit to the UK this fall:


    An interesting twist on that arose this past week when the Vatican found an unrelated excuse to take offense and announce that they might not be coming after all:


  6. There should be no immunity given to any group, nation or religious denomination to escape prosecution for the sexual abuse of the children of our country. Nor should any individuals who have been shown to have enabled or facilitated such acts escape prsecution. Such immunity should be pulled immediately and retroactive prosecution allowed.

    Such accomodation in law is against everything that religious denominations profess.

  7. Pedophilia is just the latest and most visible in a long list of transgressions from the Catholic Church. These days the Vatican is facing legal action in Kentucky for child abuse cases by Catholic priests, and the ensuing cover up from the Catholic hierarchy including, allegedly, by Cardinal Ratzinger (today’s Pope Benedict).

    I believe attorneys could and should widen the scope to include previous transgressions, particularly those that lead to the commitment of heinous crimes during the Holocaust. In my book “Six Million Crucifixions” I make a legal analysis of the various counts a potential indictment against the Church, the Vatican and members of the clergy might have looked like, had the Allies set up an international trial styled after Nuremberg and put any clergy guilty of crimes on the dock. In particular, an indictment might have included the following charges:

    * Defamation
    * Incitement
    * Complicity in human rights violations
    * Accessory or complicity in crimes against humanity
    * Failure to warn/act
    * Obstruction of Justice
    * Profiting from stolen property
    * Abuse of diplomatic privileges
    * Crimes against humanity

    I think it’s time to revisit the role of the Church in the Holocaust and its aftermath, and do it quickly as Pope Benedict is attempting to whitewash history by canonizing Pope Pius XII, while the Vatican Secret Archives covering the Nazi era remain closed and will continue to remain closed for another five years.

    Gabriel Wilensky

    Six Million Crucifixions:
    How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust
    Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sixmillionbook
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