Federal Court Rules Vatican Can Be Sued Over Abuse

By | March 6, 2009

federal appeals court has kept alive a challenge to the sovereign immunity of the Vatican by upholding a ruling that victims of sexual abuse by priests can sue the Holy See.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a 2006 ruling from Portland, Ore.-based U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman that “the Holy See is not immune from suit” in a case involving a priest with “dangerous proclivities.”

The appeals court, however, narrowed the scope of Mosman’s decision, sending it back to the lower court. The panel ruled the lawsuit against the Vatican could not proceed because the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act “preserves immunity for discretionary acts.”

But the 9th Circuit said there could be an exception to the act based on commercial activity by the church. The question of whether that exception applies hinges on whether an accused priest can be considered an employee of the Vatican.

Jeffrey Lena, an attorney for the Holy See, called that a “dubious proposition” at best.

But that likely will be up to Mosman to decide, and the case probably will be subject to another round of appeals if the recent ruling by the 9th Circuit itself is not appealed.

Lena noted the 9th Circuit ruling was the collective opinion of the appeals court rather than a single opinion, yet was accompanied by individual dissenting and concurring opinions, an unusual combination of judicial attention to the questions posed by the case.

“We’re gratified by the judges’ efforts and by the opinion’s narrowing of any basis for jurisdiction over the Holy See,” said Lena, whose law office is in Berkeley, Calif.

Attorneys for the victim and a victims advocacy group declared it a legal victory for other victims of abuse by priests.

“This ruling sends a clear signal that anyone who enables American kids to be molested will face legal consequences,” said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney handling the case.

“It also signals that the Vatican is not above the law,” Anderson said in a statement.

According to court documents, Father Andrew Ronan began abusing boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland. He was transferred to Chicago, where he admitted to abusing three boys at St. Philip’s High School.

Ronan was later moved to St. Albert’s Church in Portland, Ore., where he was accused of abusing the victim who filed the lawsuit now under appeal. Ronan died in 1992.

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