Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Vatican Claim of Sovereign Immunity in Sex Abuse

I was traveling last week and did not realize until I returned that the Vatican has suffered a significant legal setback in it's claim to sovereign immunity from U.S. prosecution for the actions of pedophile priests and of bishops who repeatedly reassigned them and hid their crimes from local prosecutors.

I first became aware of the development as one of several listed by National Catholic Reporter Senior Correspondent John Allen Jr. in a July 2nd analysis entitled Seven Days That Shook the Vatican. Allen noted "A decision by the Supreme Court in the United States to allow a sex abuse lawsuit against the Vatican in Oregon to proceed, and the filing of a new lawsuit against the Vatican (as well as the Salesian order) in Los Angeles just two days later."

A Google search led me to more specific coverage, including articles in Reuters and The Huffington Post. The articles said that a lower court in Oregon had held that the case met one of the exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. An appeals court had agreed, ruling that the plaintiff in the case had sufficiently alleged that the priest charged in the civil suit was "an employee of the Vatican acting within the scope of his employment under Oregon law." The Supreme Court declined to hear the Vatican's appeal of the rulings by the two lower courts.

Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's attorney for all sex abuse claims naming it in the United States, tried to spin the development as positively as possible, telling Catholic News Agency that the decision was not on the merits of the case and that the Supreme Court rejection merely meant that the case was being returned to the Oregon court to hear other defenses.

This, however, minimizes the significance of the development drastically. Sovereign immunity has been one of the pillars of the Vatican defense for several years, and this case marks the first time the courts have called the Vatican claim bogus. Having lost all the way to the Supreme Court in the Oregon case, the Vatican ought to assume that it will face similar losses in others.

As observed here before, the claim that priests and bishops do not function as employees of the Vatican does not comport with reality in parishes and chancery offices around the globe. It is disingenuous for the Vatican's attorney to push such a claim, and all it does is fuel the public perception that the Vatican has something to hide. The Vatican needs to abandon the claim and own up to its civil and criminal liability for child abuse.

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