Vatican to Detail Its Defense

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  • Wall Street Journal

  • MAY 14, 2010, 3:36 A.M. ET

    By ASHBY JONES

    The Vatican is soon due to defend itself in U.S. court, after failing to thwart a lawsuit claiming it ordered American bishops to cover up evidence of child sex abuse.

    In court filings expected next week, the Vatican likely will provide the most comprehensive look yet at how it plans to defend itself against the accusations.

    “These allegations are false,” said Jeffrey Lena, the U.S. lawyer for the Holy See. “Our filings will address this.”

    The original accusations against the Vatican stem from a 2004 suit in Louisville, Ky., on behalf of three men who said they were sexually abused by Catholic priests in Kentucky when they were children.

     The suit, which requests class-action status on behalf of other alleged victims across the country, claims the Vatican instructed bishops in the U.S. to keep quiet when confronted with evidence or allegations that priests had abused children. That policy, the suit claims, helped foster a culture in which sex abuse was tolerated.

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    William McMurry, the lawyer representing alleged victims in the Kentucky case, said it was unfair for parishoners to foot the bill for payments in abuse cases.

    “It’s time that responsibility fall where it should—on the shoulders of the church, which has systematically ordered bishops to stay silent in the face of criminal behavior,” he said.

    Mr. Lena countered that while some local bishops surely failed to comply with reporting requirements, the Holy See does not bear responsibility.

    The Vatican will make the argument that American bishops aren’t its employees and that the Vatican never barred reporting sex abuse to authorities, Mr. Lena said.

    The suit is one of a handful in the U.S. to make allegations directly against the Vatican.

    For years, the Kentucky case—in which the Vatican is the sole defendant—was held up as judges considered whether the suit could be filed in the U.S. directly against the Vatican, considered a sovereign state. The Vatican’s failure to get the entire case thrown out early on has led its lawyers to prepare more thorough responses to the allegations.

    In its upcoming motions to dismiss on fresh grounds, Mr. Lena said two arguments would be key

    First, he said, he would offer expert testimony that a pivotal 1962 Vatican document, called Crimen Sollicitationis, never barred reporting sexual abuse to civil authorities. The plaintiffs have alleged that the document instructed bishops to keep quiet when told of alleged sex abuse.

    Mr. Lena said Holy See law has “never mandated nonreporting.”

    The Vatican will also argue that the plaintiffs’ assertion that the Holy See is the employer of diocesan bishops such as the Archbishop of Louisville is incorrect, and that the Holy See does not control the bishops’ conduct enough to establish jurisdiction.

    “The pope doesn’t pay salaries or pay the dioceses’ insurance premiums,” said Mr. Lena. “A bishop decides where to place his priests, what lay employees to hire, and the other things necessary to run his diocese. Day-to-day authority for the administration of the diocese is squarely in the hands of the bishop.”

    Mr. Lena noted that while bishops are appointed by the pope, they aren’t employees or officials of the Holy See.

    The filings come on the heels of a string of new allegations against the Catholic Church. The church’s leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, have recently been accused of failing to quickly deal with priests in Wisconsin; Oakland, Calif.; and parts of Europe, despite knowledge or warnings that the priests had sexually abused children.

    The Vatican has denied wrongdoing in instances in which it has been accused of failing to act expeditiously in disciplining priests. It has acknowledged abuse and offered apologies for incidents of sexual abuse by priests.

    Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday called on the Roman Catholic Church to take responsibility for its crisis of sexual-abuse allegations against priests, saying the church needed to learn “forgiveness, but also the need for justice.”

    Mr. Lena said the speech wasn’t an invitation to talk settlement in any case pending against the Vatican. The Holy See, he said, was “in no way involved in the terrible acts committed by certain local priests in Louisville” and the attempt to link those acts to the Holy See “has no basis.”

    A failure by Mr. Lena to get the case thrown out by Louisville federal Judge John Heyburn would put it on course for trial. Said Joseph Dellapenna, a professor at Villanova University School of Law: “As far as I know, a case against the Vatican has never moved this far.”

    There are at least two other known lawsuits against the Vatican in the U.S. An action filed in Oregon in 2002 is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear it. The other was filed in Wisconsin last month.

    Mr. Dellapenna said it was unlikely the plaintiffs would be able to depose the pope, as Mr. McMurry has requested of Judge Heyburn. Heads of state enjoy an additional immunity that can only be pierced by the U.S. State Department.

    But an inability to question the pontiff won’t necessarily preclude other avenues for the plaintiffs, Mr. Dellapenna said. If the Kentucky case moves forward, alleged abuse victims in the U.S. would likely be able to seek, for the first time, documents and testimony from senior Catholic Church officials, including possibly the pope.

    “That could ultimately prove quite embarrassing for the Vatican,” said David Bederman, an international law expert at Emory University School of Law.

    Write to Ashby Jones at ashby.jones@wsj.com

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