A federal judge has ruled that a Mexico City man can proceed with a U.S. clergy abuse lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles even though the alleged abuse occurred in Mexico and involved only Mexican citizens.
Church attorneys had sought dismissal of the case by arguing that American courts lacked jurisdiction but U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton Tucker on Feb. 25 denied the motion.
Archdiocese of Los Angeles attorney Michael Hennigan said the case had no merit and would be dismissed, the Associated Press reports.
The lawsuit, filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, alleges that Cardinal Roger Mahony and then-Bishop Norberto Rivera of Tehuacan, Mexico conspired to protect a sexually abusive priest and help him avoid authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico.
The act allows foreigners access to U.S. courts when remedies are lacking in their home countries.
Jeff Anderson, the plaintiff’s attorney, said that the priest abused dozens of children in Mexico, including the plaintiff, after he fled U.S. authorities who wanted to arrest him in 1988 for suspected sexual abuse in Los Angeles. The priest allegedly abused 26 children in the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Anderson’s plaintiff, now 26, was 12 at the time of the alleged abuse.
The judge’s ruling could allow more Mexican plaintiffs who allege abuse by the priests to file lawsuits in U.S. courts.
“This does open a door that has never been opened before,” Anderson said.
But Hennigan said the judge was not required to consider the facts of the case and limited analysis to a narrow range of issues. Church attorneys will file a new motion for dismissal on other legal grounds.
The suit lists 10 causes of action, including rape and crimes against humanity. Cardinal Mahony is named in the suit as well as Cardinal Norberto Rivera, who now heads the Archdiocese of Mexico City.
Mahony was not aware of the priest’s history when he accepted him and asked the Mexican bishop for help in finding the priest once he became a fugitive, Hennigan added.
“We think the court is suggesting—and we agree—that this needs to be addressed on the merits of the case and we will attempt to do that,” the attorney told the AP.
The judge has not yet ruled on whether the case is strong enough to proceed to trial.
A spokesman for Cardinal Rivera said the Mexican archbishop had done nothing wrong.
The accused priest Fr. Nicholas Aguilar Rivera, who is unrelated to the cardinal, was sent from Mexico to Los Angeles for a temporary assignment in 1987. Two altar boys accused the priest of molestation, but he fled to Mexico.
The lawsuit charges that in 1987 the Mexican bishop contacted Mahony and asked him to accept the priest for a year because of family and health reasons.
In the bishop’s letter introducing the priest to Cardinal Mahony, he mentioned that Fr. Aguilar Rivera had been brutally attacked in his Mexican parish, possibly because of unproven problems of homosexuality, according to the lawsuit.
Mahony has said he never received the letters explaining the priest’s history.
The priest was laicized in 2009 and remains at large in Mexico, where he is believed to be living out of his car. He has been wanted by U.S. authorities on 19 felony counts of lewd conduct.
Judges have rejected two previous lawsuits filed against Cardinal Rivera, saying a Mexican citizen cannot sue another Mexican citizen in U.S. court. Cardinal Mahony settled his portion of an earlier lawsuit in 2007.
“We have responded to U.S. courts. We did it once, we did it twice (and) we do not intend to continue doing so,” Fr. Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico, told the AP. “Cardinal Rivera has already said he did not cover up for this priest.”