Suit Reaches New Heights: the Vatican
Legal Odyssey - after Years of Stops and Starts, an Oregon Priest Abuse Case Is Believed to Be the First Served against the Holy See
By Ashbel S. Green
The Sunday Oregonian [Oregon]
December 11, 2005
Process servers have crashed celebrity parties, donned disguises and engaged in car chases -- whatever it takes to put legal papers into the hands of reluctant defendants.
But rough-and-tumble tactics won't work against the Vatican, an independent country located within the city of Rome. To sue a foreign nation, lawyers in an Oregon priest abuse case needed to spend $40,000 for a pair of Latin translators and wait more than three years to serve the proper Vatican official through the right diplomatic channels.
"I've never in 24 years of practice ever had the kind of obstruction, obfuscation, delays, difficulties, challenges and nonsense that I've encountered in trying to serve them," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney representing the plaintiff in the case.
But Anderson's persistence paid off. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Catholic dioceses and religious orders, but Anderson's suit is believed to be just one of two pending against the Vatican itself.
And Anderson's lawsuit, which involves a priest who molested a boy in Portland in the mid-1960s, is believed to be the first priest-abuse case to be successfully served against the Holy See in Rome.
Anderson, who has sued hundreds of dioceses and religious orders around the country, said he wants to hold the Vatican financially responsible.
"I have long come to the realization that there is a widespread problem that emanates from the top," he said. "And until it is addressed by the Vatican, it will continue to be a problem worldwide."
Lawyers for the Vatican dispute its responsibility for the actions of a priest in the United States. And they are fighting to dismiss the lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money.
Experts point out that it is very difficult to sue foreign governments, which have broad immunity with limited exceptions.
"It's the old principle of sovereign immunity," said Allen S. Weiner, a professor of international law and diplomacy at Stanford Law School. "The courts of one country generally can't sit in judgment of the actions of another state."
The 2002 federal lawsuit concerns the conduct of the Rev. Andrew Ronan, who was moved to Portland in the mid-1960s after admitting he molested children in Ireland and Chicago, the suit claims.
The plaintiff, who now lives in Washington, said he was a teenager when Ronan repeatedly molested him in Portland in 1965 or 1966.
Portland Archdiocese officials said they acted swiftly when they learned about Ronan, who was eventually defrocked and left Oregon. He died in the early 1990s.
In order for any suit to go forward, it must be delivered to the defendant. Delivery can be as easy as putting a copy of the suit in the mail, but lawyers sometimes hire process servers to track down reluctant defendants.
Earlier this year, for example, a process server pursued Irish actor Colin Farrell's car through the streets of Beverly Hills for 20 minutes before cutting him off and handing him a copy of a suit by a woman who claimed he harassed and stalked her.
But even if a process server could get past the Swiss guards, handing the pope a copy of a lawsuit doesn't count as service.
Because the Vatican is a foreign country, all documents must be translated into its official language. And Anderson also had to send the documents through the U.S. State Department to the proper Vatican official.
Jeffrey S. Lena, a Berkeley, Calif., attorney representing the Holy See, said his client simply demanded to be served legal papers like any other foreign government.
"It's in an extremely well-established framework in which the Holy See is doing and asking no more than the United States asks in its own international relations," Lena said.
Anderson hired two Latin scholars from the University of Minnesota to translate 41 pages -- every word from "fraud" and "conspiracy" to "e-mail" ("inscripto electronica").
Lena, using his own Latin experts, argued that Anderson failed to meet the requirements. Twice, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman told Anderson to try again.
Lena declined to contest the third try in November.
Anderson's next hurdle is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which prohibits lawsuits against foreign countries with a few exceptions.
Anderson says his suit falls under the exception for injuries caused by certain foreign government officials on American soil.
In this case, it's the molestation of the plaintiff by a Catholic priest in Portland.
In court papers seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, Lena claims the Vatican cannot be held responsible.
Experts say the case could hinge on whether a priest is considered an employee of the Vatican or a local archdiocese or religious order.
Jenny S. Martinez, a professor at Stanford Law School, said the courts have dismissed lots of suits over the years because they couldn't establish enough of a connection between the person who caused the injury and the foreign government.
"It is a high hurdle to climb," Martinez said.
Still, of all the cases she's heard of, a lawsuit against the Vatican for the acts of a priest on American soil might just work.
"This does seem to be a little different than most cases that have been thrown out," Martinez said.