Judge Removes Pope As Defendant in Molestation Suit
Three Men Suing the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

By Harvey Rice
Houston Chronicle
December 23, 2005

A Houston federal judge has removed Pope Benedict XVI from a lawsuit accusing him of being part of a conspiracy to cover up the molestation of three boys in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

A letter from the U.S. State Department giving the pope sovereign immunity shields him from further legal action, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled.

"Pope Benedict's motion to dismiss all claims against him is granted on the basis of this court's recognition of head-of-state immunity," she wrote.

The lawsuit ? by three men listed in court documents as John Does I, II and III ? alleges that they were molested as boys by then-seminary student Juan Carlos Patino Arango in the mid-1990s. Rosenthal's ruling leaves the archdiocese, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Monsignor William Pickard and Patino Arango as defendants.

Tahira Merritt , attorney for the plaintiffs, now 23, 19 and 21, said she has not decided whether to appeal Rosenthal's ruling.

"We're going to press forward with the case and hope we can get Patino to stand trial and go forward with the case against the archdiocese," Merritt said.

Merritt said Rosenthal did not address the challenge to the constitutionality of giving diplomatic recognition to the Vatican.

She argues that the pope, who was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he was added to the lawsuit early this year, is the head of a church and therefore cannot be recognized as a head of state.

President Reagan formally recognized the Vatican in 1984 and sent an ambassador. Previous presidents had appointed personal representatives.

The U.S. government recommended sovereign immunity for the pope after the lawsuit sought to link a letter he wrote in 2001 to an alleged conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse in the church.

The letter, written while he was a cardinal, called for adherence to guidelines issued in 1962 for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The lawsuit calls the guidelines "a virtual green light for all bishops to actually facilitate, albeit secretly, the sexual exploitation of minors, and even brute animals, by clergy."

It contends that the document ? Crimen Sollicitationis or Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation ? allows church tribunals to conduct sham trials, transfer suspected perpetrators and silence victims.

Archdiocese officials could not be reached for comment, but Fiorenza has said previously that the lawsuit's interpretation of the guidelines "is beyond belief."

Jeffrey S. Lena, an attorney for the pope based in Berkeley, Calif., said Rosenthal's decision was "expected and appropriate, because the State Department issued a very clear statement of immunity."

The lawsuit accuses Patino Arango, a Colombian seminarian who was training to become a priest, of molesting the three boys in 1995 and 1996 at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Houston.

John Does I and II were in the eighth grade and John Doe III was 11 or 12, according to court documents. Patino Arango fled to Colombia after indictment. He has been indicted for molesting a fourth boy and remains a fugitive, Merritt said.

The lawsuit alleges that Pickard and the archdiocese covered up the abuse and that Fiorenza helped Patino Arango flee.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2004, was moved from Harris County state district court to federal court early this year after the pope was added.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.