- Associated Press - Monday, August 20, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Vatican won a major victory Monday in an Oregon federal courtroom, where a judge ruled that the Holy See is not the employer of molester priests.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman ends a six-year question in the decade-old case and could shield the Vatican from possible monetary damages.

The original lawsuit was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said the Rev. Andrew Ronan repeatedly molested him in the late 1960s.

The plaintiffs tried to show that Ronan and all priests are employees of the Vatican, which is therefore liable for their actions.


Judge Mosman made a previous decision strictly on legal theory and determined that, if all the facts in the case were true, then the Vatican would indeed employ Ronan. But Monday, Judge Mosman said he looked at the facts in the case and didn’t find an employer-employee relationship.

“There are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See,” Judge Mosman said in his ruling from the bench.

Jeff Anderson, attorney for the plaintiff, said he will appeal the decision. “While we’re disappointed, of course, we’re not discouraged,” he said.

Vatican attorney Jeff Lena declined to comment.

The case is the last major U.S. sex-abuse lawsuit against the Holy See. Cases in Kentucky and Wisconsin have been dropped in recent years.

The plaintiffs argued that Ronan’s fealty to the pope, the Vatican’s ability to promote priests, the Vatican’s laicization — or removal — process, and the ability to change priests’ training all pointed to the Vatican employing priests.

“We believe that under further scrutiny,” Mr. Anderson said in a news release, “the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy and concealment practiced by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States.”

The impact of Judge Mosman’s ruling on other priest sex-abuse cases is not yet clear. The case has gone further than any other in attempting to get at the relationship between priests in the U.S. and the Vatican.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, said lawsuits against the pope are usually dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds, with a U.S. court ruling that the Vatican can’t be sued because there is no jurisdiction in the U.S. to do so.

“This was likely filed more to make a political statement,” Mr. Laycock said.

Judge Mosman took up several hypothetical analogies while questioning attorneys for both sides. He said that, for instance, the Oregon legal bar has many of the same powers over lawyers as the Vatican has over priests: It can disbar someone and issue sanctions, just as the Vatican can laicize priests, but doing so doesn’t constitute a firing.

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