U.S. Federal Judge Rules That Oregon Sex-Abuse Lawsuit against Vatican Can Proceed

Catholic Online
June 8, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. (Catholic Online) A federal judge ruled June 7, 2006, that a sex-abuse lawsuit against the Vatican can move forward with its claim that the Holy See was responsible for the activities of a priest who was transferred from a number of dioceses in the 1960s.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman rejected the Vatican's bid to dismiss the lawsuit that claims the Holy See, the Archdiocese of Portland and the archbishop of Chicago, and the Servite order and its U.S. province conspired to protect Father Andrew Ronan by moving him from Ireland to Chicago to Portland despite a history of abuse.

According to international law, a nation is typically immune from the jurisdiction of the courts of another nation. However, a foreign state may be sued, according to the 1976 U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which restricts immunity in certain cases. But whether a state, such as the Holy See, would be immune to U.S. litigation is determined by U.S. courts.

In the ruling, Mosman, who was appointed to the bench in 2003 a year after the case was filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., noted that Ronan admitted to sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Armagh in Ireland before he was moved to St. Philip's High School in Chicago, where he admitted to abusing three boys. Ronan was then transferred to his order's Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.

The suit alleged that the plaintiff, identified only as John V. Doe, was sexually abused in Portland in 1965 or 1966, at the age of 15 or 16, by Ronan, who was laicized in March 1966.

The suit claimed the movement of the alleged abusers from one place to another was part of a church policy and practice aimed at protecting the abusers and the church from liability for their actions. The Holy See, it said, "by and through its agents, granted Ronan faculties to perform as a Roman Catholic priest" and, at the time of the alleged abuse, "also certified and held Ronan out to the community of the faithful as a fit and competent agent of defendant Holy See and a minister of Christ."

The decision is "not a ruling on the ultimate facts of the case," but rather simply permits that the complaint can go forward, said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, in a June 8, 2006, interview with Catholic Online.

"This is the first preliminary motion" in a case that is already four years old, Chopko said, adding that it is "not an adjudication that the Holy See is now liable" in sex-abuse cases in the United States.

He said the court by law had to proceed as if all of the facts of the complaint are true.

But, he added, the complaint makes claims that are "just wrong," including the insistence that the Holy See has direct supervisory power over diocesan or religious priests and positing a management "structure that is foreign to the Catholic Church."

"Under church law," he said, "priests are not supervised by anyone other than the bishop of the diocese or the religious superior." As a result, he said, a case, such as this one, that places responsibility on the Holy See for the actions of clergy has little chance of success.

The Chicago Archdiocese named in the suit because Ronan was stationed at a Servite high school there in 1960-65 said in 2002 that a review of its records "has not disclosed any incident of misconduct by Father Ronan" during that time, reported Catholic News Service at the time.

It also said he was working there under the auspices of his order and "was not assigned by the archbishop."

The Portland Archdiocese issued a statement in 2002 saying it believed the John Doe listed in the lawsuit "is the same individual who complained to the archdiocese in 1966 about Father Andrew Ronan," according to Catholic News Service.

It said that, upon receiving the complaint, the archdiocese "took swift and decisive action," initiating judicial proceedings under which Ronan was laicized.

Ronan died in 1992.


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