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The Pope gets a US lawyer

by Nicole Winfield
| April 18, 2010 9:00 PM

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.

The 51-year-old former history professor 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 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.

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.

Lena spent a year of law school studying at the University of Milan where he discovered comparative law, how ideas circulate among different legal systems.

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