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, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...