Federal appeals court upholds ruling Vatican can be sued over abuse

SAN FRANCISCO – The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco March 3 upheld a 2006 lower court ruling that the Vatican is not entitled to sovereign immunity from a clergy sex abuse lawsuit that named it as a defendant.

But it narrowed the extent of that ruling by remanding the case to the lower court “for further proceedings” before the suit against the Vatican can go forward.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit issued the decision on a June 7, 2006, ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman in Portland, Ore.

The case before the court, John V. Doe v. Holy See, was first filed in Portland in April 2002. It involves claims that the victim, identified only as John V. Doe, was sexually abused in Portland in 1965 or 1966, at the age of 15 or 16, by Servite Father Andrew M. Ronan, who was then stationed at his order’s Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.

He was laicized in 1966 and allegedly had previously admitted to sexually abusing children at earlier postings in Ireland and in Chicago. He died in 1992.

Judge Mosman had denied a Vatican motion to be removed as a defendant in the case, saying that the Vatican is not entitled to immunity under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which grants immunity to foreign nations from nearly all civil lawsuits.

But the 9th Circuit panel said one of the exceptions to the immunity law’s provisions may apply to the church but that the suit against the Vatican cannot proceed until that can be determined.

It said the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act “preserves immunity for discretionary acts,” but there might be an exception for commercial activity by the church if the priest accused of abuse can be considered an employee of the Vatican.

However, the 9th Circuit panel said it did not have “jurisdiction to consider … the commercial activity exception at this time” and sent the case back to Judge Mosman’s court.

In his 2006 ruling Judge Mosman said there was enough of a connection between the Vatican and the priest accused of the molestation for the priest to be considered a Vatican employee under Oregon law.

Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson, the lawyer for the plaintiff in the case, called the ruling by the 9th Circuit panel a victory for victims of clergy abuse and said in a statement that it signals “the Vatican is not above the law.”

Jeffrey Lena of Berkeley, Calif., an attorney for the Vatican, told The Associated Press that the notion the priest could be considered an employee of the Vatican was “dubious” and praised the judges for an opinion that narrowed “any basis for jurisdiction over the Holy See.”

Last November the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled a lawsuit can move forward against the Vatican involving three men who claimed to have been sexually abused when they were children by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky.

The lead counsel for the Vatican in that case said the ruling presented significant challenges for the attorneys representing the three men in proving the Vatican is liable for damages.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.