Vatican Can Be Sued over Bishops' Conduct, Judge Says (Update 2)

By Steven Church
Bloomberg [Kentucky]
January 11, 2007

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The Vatican can be sued over claims that U.S. leaders of the Roman Catholic church failed to warn parishioners about pedophile priests, a Kentucky judge ruled.

In the second decision of its kind, Chief U.S. District Court Judge John G. Heyburn II in Louisville said the Holy See itself must face a sexual-abuse lawsuit. Most victims have sued their local diocese in state and federal courts without directly naming the Vatican because of restrictions laid out in the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, or FSIA.

"We are attempting to hold the ultimate responsible party liable for what happened here," said William F. McMurry, a Louisville lawyer representing a people who contend they were sexually abused by priests. "It's unfair to hold the parishioners of Catholic parishes financially responsible for what their bishops did at the behest of their superiors in the Vatican."

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against individual priests, bishops and other church leaders across the U.S. since the sexual abuse scandal became national news in 2002. Defending those cases have placed financial burdens on America's 194 dioceses, which operate semi-independently from the Vatican.

Some dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection to deal with the litigation. On Jan. 4, the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington, said it would end its bankruptcy case in part by signing a $48 million settlement with abuse victims.

A host of Catholic bishops in the U.S. have issued apologies for the actions of abusive priests and taken steps to remove those individuals from their ministries.

'Precedent Set'

The Kentucky ruling is likely to prompt a fresh wave of suits from victims of priest abuse, said lawyer Thomas S. Neuberger, who is suing the Catholic church in Wilmington, Delaware, over abuse allegations.

"We're going to see more suits like this now that a precedent has been set," Neuberger said. "If you tried to subpoena documents or sue in the past, they would raise the immunity defense."

Attorney Jeffrey S. Lena, who represented the Holy See, said church leaders won some important legal points in Heyburn's ruling.

For example, the judge agreed that actions by the Holy See itself cannot be challenged, only those by its employees. The judge also said he is open to reconsidering his decision if the church can provide facts to challenge the idea that its bishops aren't Holy See employees for purposes of the class- action suit.

Lawyers who have sued on behalf of sex-abuse victims have hesitated to name the Vatican because of the FSIA's strict requirements, said Adrienne Kim, who works with McMurry on the Kentucky abuse case.

Latin Subpoena

While the Vatican serves as the head of the more than 1-billion member Roman Catholic Church, it also is a sovereign city state located within the city of Rome.

Even serving a subpoena on the Vatican is difficult, because the papers must be in Latin, she said. Her firm had the subpoena's language translated into the ancient tongue, she said.

"For us, it was less of a legal strategy. It was a moral strategy," she said. "If you have evidence that they have knowledge of what's going on, then that should be pursued."

McMurry said Heyburn found the Vatican ordered American bishops in 1962 to hide evidence that priests were sexually abusing lay members of the church. That opens up the Holy See to damage claims, he said.

The nationwide scandal emerged in January 2002 after abuse victims in the Boston area filed hundreds of lawsuits against Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the former head of the diocese.

Law stepped down after the Boston Globe revealed archdiocese officials had shifted priests accused of abuse from parish to parish. Law is now assigned to administrative duties at the Vatican and is archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one the church's five major basilicas in Rome.

The Kentucky case is 04CV-338, James H. O'Bryan et al v. Holy See, in the Western District of Kentucky (Louisville).

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven Church in Wilmington, Delaware at .


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