Vatican Asked to Serve Pope in Milwaukee Lawsuit

By Matt Hrodey
Milwaukee News Buzz
October 5, 2010

A federal judge in Milwaukee is asking the Vatican to serve three high-ranking Roman Catholic officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, with summons to respond to a lawsuit alleging they failed to act on allegations that a priest at the St. John School for the Deaf in St. Francis had sexually abused as many as 200 young students. A lawyer for the man who brought the suit says the summonses are unprecedented – the first of their kind in the U.S.

Last week, Judge Rudolph Randa issued letters to the Vatican asking it to serve the summonses on the pope, whose birth name is Joseph Ratzinger, and two high-ranking cardinals, Tarcisio Bertone and Angelo Sodano. The summonses don’t necessarily require the church officials to provide any kind of testimony; they only serve as a formal notification of the lawsuit.

Pope Benedict XVI

The case made international headlines when it was filed in April, when top church officials dismissed it in public statements. Until recently, the man who brought the lawsuit, Terry Kohut, had concealed his identity as “John Doe.” Mike Finnegan, the St. Paul, Minn., attorney representing him in the case, says the summonses are the first of their kind. “To my knowledge, this is unprecedented,” he says, “that any court in the U.S. has asked the Vatican for help in serving any documents, including a summons on the pope.”

Finnegan says the case could be decided without serving the three church officials, but enforcing any ruling would then be more difficult. Finnegan hopes to eventually call the three to testify in the court.

Kohut’s case, covered in detail by NewsBuzz in April, faces a series of legal hurdles because the Vatican is an independent state that claims sovereign immunity. But the case has already brought a wide range of documents to light that the Milwaukee Archdiocese had previously claimed didn’t exist. They reveal how many law enforcement and church officials in Milwaukee and Europe (including Ratzinger, then a Cardinal) knew of the allegations that Father Lawrence Murphy had abused boys at the school during his time at the school (which ran from 1950 to 1974), yet he remained a priest until his death in 1998.

The Vatican has historically maintained that it has sovereign immunity and isn’t subject to foreign courts. Finnegan says Randa’s letters seeking help from the Vatican aren’t binding. “At this point, it’s a request from one court to another court,” the attorney says. And it’s not clear yet which court will handle the request. The Vatican, which is organized as an independent state, has its own judicial system with several levels of courts. In the past, the Vatican has dismissed the lawsuit as a publicity stunt, saying it “rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts.”

Finnegan says he’s received no response yet from the Vatican. Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says of the letters, “This is really moving forward. It could have taken years to get to this point.” Finnegan, who works for Jeff Anderson and Associates, a law firm specializing in sexual abuse cases, says a clergy abuse lawsuit filed in Oregon in 2002 was bogged down by arguments from the Vatican and similar letters were never issued.


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