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Lawsuit against Holy See is dropped

Lawyer Jeff Anderson at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Salesian order and the Holy See. The case is brought by a Californian man who alleges he was abused by a priest in the 1960s (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The Vatican has welcomed as “good news” the imminent end of a lawsuit against the Holy See in a US court while stressing its condemnation of the “horror” of clerical sex abuse.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, told journalists that “the Holy See is satisfied to hear the news” that a lawsuit in a US court against the Vatican was being dropped by the plaintiffs.

Three men in Louisville, Kentucky, filed a motion on Monday requesting that a federal judge drop their case.

The men, who were abused by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville, filed a suit against the Vatican in 2004 claiming it was liable for actions by bishops in failing to prevent sexual abuse by priests. They argued that the bishops who supervised the abusive priests were employees of the Holy See.

However, the men’s attorney, William F McMurry, told media outlets that because an earlier court ruling recognised the Vatican’s sovereign immunity, he was going to drop the lawsuit. A judge must now rule whether the case can be dismissed, but lawyers for both sides told the Associated Press it had virtually ended.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act protects governments from being hauled into US courts. The law previously has been found to apply to efforts to sue the Holy See, exempting it from tort claims.

In June, the US Supreme Court left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Holy See.

By declining to take Holy See versus John Doe, the court left intact the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said because of the way Oregon law defines employment, the Vatican is not protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from potential liability for the actions of a priest who Doe, the unidentified plaintiff, said sexually abused him in the 1960s.

The case will now go back to US District Court, where Doe’s attorneys, including Jeff Anderson, will attempt to prove that the late Andrew Ronan, a former Servite priest who was laicised in 1966, was a Vatican employee at the time the events took place.

Jeffrey Lena, the US-based attorney for the Holy See, said on Monday that the Louisville lawsuit had “always lacked merit”.

“This development confirms that, contrary to what the plaintiffs’ lawyers repeatedly told the media, there has never been a Holy See policy requiring concealment of child sexual abuse,” he said.

“The theory crafted by the plaintiffs’ lawyers six years ago misled the American public,” he said.

“That the case against the Holy See always lacked merit does not mean that the plaintiffs themselves did not suffer as a result of sexual abuse,” he said. “But bringing this case only distracted from the important goal of protecting children from harm.”

Mr Lena added that other sex abuse cases involving the Church were coming unstuck, including the cases of an alleged serial paedophile priest in Wisconsin and another sexually abusive priest in California, saying that the plaintiffs “never filed anything”.

Fr Lombardi said despite the good news of the case’s almost certain dismissal, the Vatican in no way was “minimising the horror and the condemnation of sexual abuse and compassion for the victims’ suffering”.

“Justice toward victims and the protection of minors must be goals that remain a priority,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is positive that a six-year-long case alleging the Holy See was involved in charges of covering-up abuse [allegations] – which also had a strong negative impact on public opinion – has in the end been shown to be grounded on a baseless accusation,” he said.

In the dismissal motion, Mr McMurry wrote that an earlier court ruling recognising Vatican immunity meant the plaintiffs then had to proceed on the argument that US bishops were officials or employees of the Holy See.

“The grant of jurisdiction was so narrow that it’s meaningless,” he said.

Also, the claim of one of the plaintiffs was voided because he was involved in a settlement against the Louisville archdiocese in 2003 and, therefore, could not seek a claim from the Vatican.

The motion said that in the other two plaintiffs’ cases, “the bishops in question are deceased and further discovery regarding the bishops’ actions is believed to be impossible”.

A lawsuit still on the books in Wisconsin states that top Vatican officials knew about allegations of sexual abuse by Fr Lawrence Murphy at St John’s School for the Deaf near Milwaukee. But Mr Lena has said the Vatican “knew nothing of his crimes until decades after the abuse occurred”.