Vatican welcomes U.S. plaintiffs’ decision to end abuse lawsuit

VATICAN CITY – While underlining its condemnation of “the horror” of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, the Vatican welcomed as “good news” the imminent end of a lawsuit against the Holy See in a U.S. court.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told journalists Aug. 10 that “the Holy See is satisfied to hear the news” that a lawsuit in a U.S. court against the Vatican was being dropped by the plaintiffs.

Three men in Louisville, Ky., filed a motion Aug. 9 requesting a federal judge drop their case.

The men, who were abused by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville, filed a suit against the Vatican in 2004 claiming it was liable for actions by bishops in failing to prevent sexual abuse by priests. They argued that the bishops who supervised the abusive priests were employees of the Holy See.

However, the men’s attorney, William F. McMurry, told media outlets that because an earlier court ruling recognized the Vatican’s sovereign immunity, he was going to drop the lawsuit. A judge must now rule whether the case can be dismissed, but lawyers for both sides told The Associated Press it had virtually ended.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act protects governments from being hauled into U.S. courts. The law previously has been found to apply to efforts to sue the Holy See, exempting it from tort claims.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Holy See.

By declining to take Holy See v. John Doe, the court left intact the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said because of the way Oregon law defines employment, the Vatican is not protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from potential liability for the actions of a priest who Doe, the unidentified plaintiff, said sexually abused him in the 1960s.

The case will now go back to U.S. District Court, where Doe’s attorneys will attempt to prove that the late Andrew Ronan, a former Servite priest who was laicized in 1966, was a Vatican employee at the time the events took place.

Jeffrey Lena, the U.S.-based attorney for the Holy See, said in a statement Aug. 9 that the Louisville lawsuit had “always lacked merit.”

“This development confirms that, contrary to what the plaintiffs’ lawyers repeatedly told the media, there has never been a Holy See policy requiring concealment of child sexual abuse,” he said.

“The theory crafted by the plaintiffs’ lawyers six years ago misled the American public,” he said.

“That the case against the Holy See always lacked merit does not mean that the plaintiffs themselves did not suffer as a result of sexual abuse,” said Lena. “But bringing this case only distracted from the important goal of protecting children from harm.”

Father Lombardi said despite the good news of the case’s almost certain dismissal, the Vatican in no way was “minimizing the horror and the condemnation of sexual abuse and compassion for the victims’ suffering.”

“Justice toward victims and the protection of minors must be goals that remain a priority,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is positive that a six-year-long case alleging the Holy See was involved in charges of covering-up abuse – (charges) which also had a strong negative impact on public opinion – has in the end been shown to be grounded on a baseless accusation,” he said.

In the dismissal motion, McMurry wrote that an earlier court ruling recognizing Vatican immunity meant the plaintiffs then had to proceed on the argument that U.S. bishops were officials or employees of the Holy See.

However, “the grant of jurisdiction was so narrow that it’s meaningless,” he said.

Also, the claim of one of the plaintiffs was voided because he was involved in a settlement against the Louisville Archdiocese in 2003 and, therefore, could not seek a claim from the Vatican.

The motion said that in the other two plaintiffs’ cases, “the bishops in question are deceased and further discovery regarding the bishops’ actions is believed to be impossible.”

A lawsuit still on the books in Wisconsin states that top Vatican officials knew about allegations of sexual abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy at St. John’s School for the Deaf near Milwaukee. But in an earlier statement, Lena said the Vatican “knew nothing of his crimes until decades after the abuse occurred.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

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