Court Finds Priests Can Be Seen As 'Employees' of the Vatican

By Kristian Foden-Vencil
OPB News
March 5, 2009

Lawyers who've been suing churches over the sexual abuse of children, are buzzing with a new court ruling that the Vatican can be sued over the behavior of priests. Kristian Foden-Vencil reports.

Legally, the Vatican is a foreign country. And foreign countries cannot be sued under U.S. law -- except under extraordinary circumstances.

Attorney Jeff Anderson appears to have managed to convince the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that some of those circumstances do indeed apply in this case of priest sexual abuse.

Jeff Anderson: "All evidentiary roads -- documentary, testimonial, everything leads to one place. Right to the top of the pyramid. And at the top of the pyramid is the sovereign state called the Vatican and I was convinced that that's where accountability had to be held for years."

Anderson and attorney Marci Hamilton argued three issues to the 9th Circuit.

The first: that the actions of one Catholic Order can be treated as a dictate to all orders from the Holy See on that point, the attorneys lost.

The second issue they also lost: that the church can be seen as a commercial entity.

But the third issue: that a priest might reasonably be regarded as an employee of the Holy See, they won.

And that's important because if a priest is an employee, then lawyers can go after the employer when there's a problem.

So far, it's been local archdioceses that have had to shoulder the financial burden of all the sexual abuse lawsuits. If the Vatican is found liable, then it could face similar financial claims.

In the case, John Doe versus the Holy See, an abuse victim went after the Vatican for moving Father Andrew Ronan from one church to another following a string of sexual abuse complaints, many of which he admitted to before he died.

After postings in Ireland and Chicago, Father Ronan eventually ended up in Portland, where a man identified only as "John Doe" in the lawsuit, says he was repeatedly abused.

Attorney Marci Hamilton says the church should have handed Ronan over to police when it first learned about his behavior.

Marci Hamilton: "It chose not to go to secular authorities, not to get these individuals put into jail, but to keep the secrets. And by keeping the secrets it created a cycle of abuse. They certainly could have reduced dramatically the number of victims in the church."

Vatican attorney, Jeffrey Lena, wouldn't talk on tape about this case. But he says the employee analogy is "dubious at best."

It'll be the job of U.S. District Court Judge, Mike Mossman, to decide whether priests can be considered employees of the Vatican. The case now reverts back to his Portland court that is unless the Holy See appeals.


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