Vatican asks U.S. court to dismiss suit

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The Vatican asked a U.S. District Court on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit against the Holy See filed by three Kentucky abuse victims, saying that bishops are not church employees and that a 1962 church directive did not mandate their silence on priestly sex abuse.

The motion, according to multiple church and secular news sources, is in response to a 2004 lawsuit, filed by Louisville lawyer William McMurry, that implicates the Catholic Church with allowing clergy sex abuse to go unchecked for decades.

The plaintiffs are Michael Turner of Louisville and two California men who grew up in Louisville, all of whom said they were sexually abused by Louisville priests during a 50-year time frame from 1928 into the 1970s.

In a plea to the U.S. District Court for Western Kentucky filed Monday evening by Berkeley, Calif., attorney Jeffrey Lena on behalf of the Vatican, the Holy See said it was not responsible for decisions by individual bishops because they are not paid by Rome nor are their day-to-day actions controlled by the pope. The Vatican had faced a midnight Monday deadline to respond to the suit.

The Vatican is a sovereign state and therefore immune to U.S. lawsuits unless U.S. bishops must be proven to be “employees” of the Vatican operating on American soil and required by their “employer” to hide evidence of sexual abuse.

The lawsuit says that the bishops are employees and directly responsible to the pontiff. It seeks to depose Pope Benedict XVI; a possibility legal experts say is minuscule as heads of state cannot be sued by a private party in U.S. courts, according to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Mr. Lena argued the relationship between the pope and bishops is far more complex than an employee/employer bond and that a secular court has no business using it as a basis for a civil suit.

But the Rev. Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer serving as expert witness for Mr. McMurry, said it is “absolute lunacy” to say bishops are not responsible to the pope.

“He does not pay their checks, but they are totally controlled by the Vatican,” Father Doyle said. “He alone can create them as bishops, he appoints them, assigns them to a diocese, fires them, accepts their resignation or transfers them.

“The employee-employer analogy is incomplete when it comes to the pope and his bishops; control by the pope is much more complete. A bishop can’t take a sabbatical to go study science for three months without the pope’s permission.”

The lawsuit also says a 1962 Vatican document “Crimen Sollicitationis” forbade bishops to report sex abuse to police. Mr. Lena replied that although the document did cover clerical misconduct, it never forbade church official recourse to civil authorities. Moreover, he said, the document was not well known at the time and there’s no evidence that any bishops in Louisville would have known about it, much less applied it toward sexual predators.

Mr. McMurry did not return a phone call asking for comment.

“I’m surprised it’s gotten as far as it’s gotten,” said the Rev. Michael Orsi, a research fellow in religion and law at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., about the lawsuit. “It’s a temper of the times considering all the focus on the sex-abuse scandal, but I think they are overreaching. The pope is a foreign head of state. You can’t depose him.

“In peoples’ minds, they imagine the pope is the general manager of every bishop in the world. The bishop is the head of a diocese; he is its chief priest and administrator. Theologically, each diocese is the local church and he’s its head. The pope appoints bishops but after that, there’s minimal contact.”

Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called “disingenuous” the Vatican’s assertion that the pope does not supervise his bishops.

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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