A high-profile lawsuit in the United States accusing Pope Benedict XVI of covering up sexual abuse has been withdrawn.
Lawyers for the plaintiff in John Doe 16 v. Holy See filed a notice of voluntary dismissal last Friday, bringing the case effectively to an end.
The lawsuit was filed in April 2010 in the US District Court in Milwaukee by an unnamed Illinois man who claimed he had been molested by Fr Lawrence Murphy during the latter’s time on the staff of Milwaukee’s St John’s School for the Deaf.
The lawsuit claimed that the Vatican “has known about the widespread problem of childhood sexual abuse committed by its clergy for centuries, but has covered up that abuse and thereby perpetuated the abuse”.
The lawsuit also sought to prove that the Vatican is a global business empire, engaging in “commercial activity” in Wisconsin and across the United States, and holding “unqualified power” over each diocese, parish and follower.
Jeffrey Lena, an American lawyer for the Holy See, welcomed the withdrawal of “fallacious allegations of Holy See responsibility and liability for John Doe 16’s abuse”.
“A case like this one against the Holy See, which was held together by no more than a mendacious web of allegations of international conspiracy, amounted to a misuse of judicial process and a waste of judicial resources,” Mr Lena said in a statement.
The plaintiff was represented by lawyer Jeff Anderson, who has filed thousands of abuse lawsuits against priests and representatives of the Catholic Church. Mr Anderson is still pursuing a sex abuse lawsuit against the Holy See in Oregon. Another such case in Kentucky was withdrawn in 2010.
Fr Murphy worked at the school for the deaf from 1950 to 1974. In the early 1970s, multiple allegations of sexual abuse against the priest were made to civil authorities, who investigated but never brought charges. He was placed on a leave of absence for a while and later returned to pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Superior, where he worked until 1993.
In 1996, then Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee referred Murphy’s case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican decided not to laicise Fr Murphy, but eventually suggested that he continue to be restricted in ministry, and he died four months later, in 1998.
Pope Benedict was named as a defendant in the case because of his authority to remove priests, and because of his involvement in reviewing sex abuse cases when he was cardinal, as prefect of the doctrinal congregation.
“Mythology about the Catholic Church to the contrary, the Holy See is not responsible for the supervision of the more than 400,000 priests around the world,” Mr Lena said.
Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, currently in Rome on an ad limina visit to the Vatican, called the outcome of the case a “reminder of the relationship of the Holy See to the dioceses”.
“The Holy See offers the direction we should go” but leaves administrative decisions up to local bishops, Archbishop Listecki said.
“When I studied law they said in tort action that if you wanted, you can go all the way back to blaming Adam and Eve,” the archbishop said. “Reasonable people and society can say: ‘This is where responsibility ends’.”