Monday, May 17, 2010

Clergy Sex Abuse: U.S. Legal Strategy Fuels Perception That Vatican Is Dishonest

Disingenuous. That was the first word that came to mind this morning when I read MSNBC's posting of an Associated Press report on how a U.S. attorney plans to defend the Vatican in a Kentucky courtroom today--against claims that church officials in Rome are liable for mishandling the clergy sex abuse scandal and intentionally trying to hide it over several decades.

Because it is disingenuous, the strategy will again fuel the perception, among the public and in the pews, that the Vatican is still trying to evade responsibility for its administrative malfeasance in the crisis and still marshaling bogus, untruthful arguments to avoid being held civilly and criminally liable.

The strategy is disingenuous on three counts.

First, according to the article, the attorney plans to claim that bishops and other clergy are not employees of the Vatican, and that therefore the Vatican cannot be held liable if bishops or priests violate civil or criminal laws.

The argument is bogus because it directly contradicts the way the Catholic church has operated for centuries--and is still operating today.

It is true that the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s tried to reassert the role of bishop as the chief shepherd in each diocese. But it is also true that the Vatican worked over the next four decades to prevent that reform from having much effect and that it actually strengthened a military-like chain of command running from the pope as commander in chief, through the bishops as his field commanders, to the priests as the officers on the front line. The Vatican exercised absolute control over every bishop and priest, and it is directly liable for decisions to repeatedly reassign those who known to be abusing children into new settings where they could repeat the behavior.

Second, the attorney will contend that a document issued by the Vatican in 1962 and reaffirmed by the Vatican in 2001 did not require bishops to report sexually abusive priests only to the Vatican and never to local public officials.

The argument is a lie, as documented by a Houston attorney and covered in a posting here on April 23, 2010. The plaintiff's attorney in Kentucky is entirely correct in maintaining that these documents are the smoking gun in the Vatican's international conspiracy to cover up the crimes.

Third, the article says the attorney plans to ask the court "to dismiss the case on the grounds that the court doesn't have jurisdiction under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which protects sovereign states from being sued in U.S. courts except under certain circumstances." This rehashes the Vatican's claim that the pope and the members of his curia should be shielded from all civil liability as a head of state. The State Department agreed with the claim in the Houston case, and the pope was dismissed as a defendant.

As observed here previously, the argument is bogus because Rome's absolute authority over its clergy is not exercised by the pope as head of a state, but rather as the chief official of a worldwide religion. The chief official is specifically liable for (a) the procedures he dictates for reassigning priests, (b) the secrecy he dictates when they violate civil and criminal laws, and (c) the legal strategies he dictates to evade liability.

Eventually some court, somewhere, is going to see these arguments for the frauds they are. Pope Benedict XVI ought to have the wisdom to see that writing on the wall. And he ought to have the fortitude instruct his attorneys, in the United States and elsewhere, to stop making claims that can only diminish the church further in the eyes of reasonable men and women. Otherwise, whatever the Vatican gains in litigation it will more than lose in allegiance from the public and even from ordinary Catholics.


Terence Weldon said...

How does one define "employee"? Bishops are appointed by the pope, who also has the power to dismiss. They do not draw a salary from the Vatican, but they are only able to raise money inside their dioceses because they are seen as agents of the world church.

But perhaps we should be grateful for this strategy. If the Vatican wants to stand by its claim, local Bishop's conferences should take this as permission to take their own decisions, say, on the new liturgical translation - or on ordaining women and married men.

Gerald T Floyd said...

To hinge civil or criminal liability to the definition of an employee is a diversionary tactic, I think. What matters is that the Vatican exercises direct control over bishops and to a lesser extent over priests. The Vatican could have insisted that abusive priests not be reassigned to places where they could offend again. Instead, the Vatican allowed reassignments or looked the other way, all the while forbidding bishops to report offenders to anyone but Rome.