In a lawsuit attempting to sue the Vatican for sexual abuse by a priest, the U.S. government has for the most part sided with the Vatican and against an appellate court’s argument that a U.S. court can hear the case. The government’s argument may significantly hinder the lawsuit.
The suit, Doe v. Holy See, was filed in 2002 on behalf of a man who claimed he was sexually abused by a priest in Oregon in the mid-1960s. The priest had previously been accused of abusing children in Ireland and Chicago.
The Holy See was one of the defendants named in a lawsuit that argues the Vatican should be held accountable for moving the priest to Oregon, where he conceivably could continue to abuse.
Jeffrey Lena, the U.S. attorney for the Vatican, said that the plaintiff has not provided evidence that the Vatican moved the priest or had control over him.
The U.S. Solicitor General’s office submitted an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals misapplied the Sovereign Immunities Act. The act covers when U.S. courts can hear cases against other countries.
The brief noted that the Holy See is recognized as a foreign sovereign by the U.S. and the two states have maintained diplomatic relations since 1984. It argued that a U.S. court may not use a U.S. state’s liability rule to expand the exceptions to sovereign immunity.
The priest’s sexual abuse was also “not within the scope of the priest’s employment,” according to the solicitor general’s office, which advised the case be vacated and remanded back to the appellate court.
David Bederman, an international law expert at Emory University School of Law, told the Wall Street Journal that “the door may still be cracked a bit” for the plaintiff but “there’s not a lot of daylight showing.”
Jeffrey Anderson, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said the brief was “a little perplexing” but he noted that the government did not recommend more drastic action like dismissing the case.
While the Supreme Court is not required to follow the government’s recommendation, it is often heavily influenced by its judgment in cases concerning relations with foreign officials or nations.
CNA spoke about the case with J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer who is vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver.
“The Catholic Church is often attacked for being this kind of huge, monolithic structure. Ordinarily we try to say that’s not what or who we are,” he commented.
In his view the case was “a perfect example of cultural misperception of the Catholic Church, coming now into the legal forum.”
Though the suit tried to depict bishops as employees or agents of the Vatican, Flynn said the bishops themselves are “apostles of Christ” who “act with great personal responsibility for their own particular churches.”
“We don’t want our civil law system to tell us that the apostles are less than who they really are,” he added.
To read the Solicitor General's brief, click here.