Court Rules That Vatican Is Not Immune from Sex Abuse Lawsuit

By David Sugerman
March 6, 2009

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Doe v. Holy See on Tuesday. The Court ruled that Doe, a victim of sexual abuse, may seek to hold the Holy See accountable for damages inflicted by a priest's sexual abuse.

Doe claims that Father Ronan sexually abused Doe when Doe was a teenager. But there's more to it. According to the opinion, Doe claims that Father Ronan sexually abused other boys. First in Ireland, then in Chicago, and then Doe in Portland. Doe claims that each time the Church learned of an abuse claim, it transfered Father Ronan on without discipline or treatment.

The opinion makes for heavy reading. But the upshot is that the Holy See argued that it was a soverign nation and as such enjoyed immunity. The decision involved an interpretation of the Foreign Sovering Immunity Act, 28 USC Sec 1604. That law generally provides that foreign countries are immune from lawsuits, with several exceptions. The Court found that Doe's case falls within one of the exceptions.

Some will interpret this case as a proper result because it holds the Church accountable for horrible misconduct to which it turned a blind eye--or worse. Some will see it as another example of liability cases run amok or as an unfair attack on the Church.

Neither interpretation would be correct. For good or bad reasons, the Church's legal team chose to mount an early attack on the complaint, by filing a motion to dismiss. That's akin to an attorney arguing that there is no way on Gods earth that the injured person can win. The problem with that approach is all that the injured victim must prove to beat this motion is that he or she might be able to win. I call this the Wayne vs. Garth standard--"No way. Way." It's a very low showing.

The sum total of what's happened is the Ninth Circuit has said that the case can go forward, and Doe is entitled to pursue his claim. Should be interesting to see what happens next.


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