U.S. courts allow sex abuse cases against Vatican to proceed in rare legal move

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

Since the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in the United States almost a decade ago, advocates have been trying to find a way to learn the role the Vatican played. Now they have gotten further than ever in their efforts to holding the Holy See accountable in a U.S. courtroom.

Two federal appeals courts in recent months have allowed sexual abuse lawsuits against the Vatican to proceed in Oregon and Kentucky. Vatican attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the Oregon case. Attorneys for both sides in the Oregon proceeding were in Washington two weeks ago making their arguments before a roomful of U.S. government officials, who could wind up weighing in if the Vatican -- considered a foreign country with immunity to lawsuits -- is found a liable party in an American case.

If the Supreme Court declines to take up the case this summer and lets the federal appeals ruling stand, attorneys could begin subpoenaing decades of documents and calling Vatican officials under oath.

Correspondence between the Vatican and U.S. clergy has always been subject to subpoena if the documents are located in the United States, attorneys say.

Attorneys on both sides note the complexity of the cases, which at this point center on whether there are legal grounds to grant an exception to the Vatican's immunity from lawsuits. In the Oregon case, lawyers are arguing that priests around the world are "employees" of the pope for whom he is responsible. The alleged sexual abuse and what is subject to legal discovery could take years to sort out.

However, the possibility of access to Vatican documents and officials has taken on new importance with clergy abuse cases across Europe coming closer than ever to Pope Benedict XVI. He is being scrutinized for his actions as a cardinal in Munich, where a priest accused of molesting boys was reassigned to another parish during his watch, and later when he headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handled thousands of abuse cases.

"I want to know what the Vatican knew and when they knew it," said William McMurry, who is representing alleged abuse victims in the Kentucky case. "Whether it's letters from bishops or conversations with bishops. I want to know what [the Vatican's doctrinal office] knew and what they instructed U.S. bishops to do. We're trying to get what's never been uncovered before -- documents only the Vatican has. That's the linchpin of liability."

Jeff Anderson, who has represented hundreds of victims since the 1980s and is working on the Oregon case, said he also is determined to penetrate the Vatican's secretive culture.

"The reason this is such a grave problem in the Catholic Church is because the Vatican operates with such insularity and arrogance," Anderson said. "They remain legally impenetrable. This is the first foot in that door."

Jeffrey Lena, an attorney who represents the Vatican, declined to comment on the lawsuits.

Courts have tossed out other attempts to hold the Vatican liable. More common in such cases is for attorneys to list the Vatican as a party to the lawsuit, but not pursue it because of the cost and time involved. Anderson said he spent more than $100,000 and two years to serve the Vatican papers, which by its rules had to be translated into Latin and Italian.

"You're going to the equivalent of legal war," he said. "No one in their right mind would pursue this."

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