Lawyers for Pope Benedict XVI have asked U.S. President George W. Bush to declare the pontiff immune from liability in a lawsuit that accuses him of conspiring to cover up the molestation of three boys by a seminarian in Texas, court records show.
The Vatican’s embassy in Washington sent a diplomatic memo to the State Department on May 20 requesting the U.S. government grant the pope immunity because he is a head of state, according to a May 26 motion submitted by the pope’s lawyers in U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Texas in Houston.
Joseph Ratzinger is named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit. Now Benedict XVI, he’s accused of conspiring with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to cover up the abuse during the mid-1990s. The suit is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Gerry Keener, said that the pope already is considered a head of state and automatically has diplomatic immunity. Keener said Benedict doesn’t have to ask for immunity and Bush doesn’t have to grant it.
International legal experts said it would be “virtually impossible” for the case to succeed because the pope, as a head of state, had diplomatic immunity. “There’s really no question at all, not the vaguest legal doubt, that he’s immune from the suit, period,” said Paolo Carozza, an international law specialist at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
Nevertheless, lawyers for abuse victims say the case is significant because previous recent attempts to implicate the Vatican, the pope or other high-ranking church officials in U.S. sex abuse proceedings have failed — primarily because of immunity claims and the difficulty serving top Vatican officials with U.S. lawsuits.
“It has gone further than any suit before, and it should be instructive to the church that if evidence of their continued handling of these matters keeps coming to light and is inconsistent with fair play, that lawyers are going to pursue it,” said Stephen Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who is not involved but has handled hundreds of other cases of church sex abuse.
The three boys, identified in court documents as John Does I, II and III, allege that a Colombian-born seminarian on assignment at St. Francis de Sales church in Houston, Juan Carlos Patino-Arango, molested them during counseling sessions in the church in the mid-1990s.
Patino-Arango has been indicted in a criminal case by a Harris County, Texas grand jury and is a fugitive from justice, the lawsuit says.
Attorney Daniel Shea, who is representing one of the three boys in the civil suit, said in a telephone interview that then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope, was involved in a conspiracy to hide Patino-Arango’s crimes and to help him escape prosecution.
In the lawsuit, Shea cited a May 18, 2001 letter from Ratzinger, written in Latin to bishops around the world, explaining that “grave” crimes such as the sexual abuse of minors would be handled by his congregation. The proceedings of special church tribunals handling the cases were subject to “pontifical secret,” Ratzinger’s letter says.
“Ratzinger’s involvement arises out of this letter, which demonstrates the clear intent to conceal the crimes involved,” Shea said.
The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have insisted that the secret church procedures in the sex abuse case were not designed to cover up abuse nor to prevent victims from reporting crimes to law enforcement authorities. The document deals with church law — not keeping secrets from secular authorities, they say.
“To insinuate that this letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is part of a Vatican conspiracy is a total and complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the letter,” Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza said in a statement. He heads the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese and is also named as a defendant in the suit.
A Vatican spokesman and attorneys for the pope declined to comment.
Shea was in Rome this week for a demonstration, timed to coincide with the church’s World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, to protest what activists said was Vatican protection for “sexual predators” among the clergy. Some 60 people formed a semicircle on the edge of St. Peter’s Square and held banners calling for Bush to refuse to grant Ratzinger immunity.
Shea said Ratzinger learned as early as January that he had been named a defendant in the lawsuit. He said Ratzinger had been served thanks to Texas’ “long-arm statute,” in which Shea served the Texas secretary of state the lawsuit, and the secretary of state then served Ratzinger at the Vatican through certified mail.
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