VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican, struggling to control the damage to its image from a sexual abuse scandal, said Tuesday it would prove it cannot be held legally responsible for a predatory priest in a pivotal U.S. lawsuit.
Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a case on whether the Vatican has immunity over the sexual abuse of minors by priests, allowing a lawsuit filed in 2002 to go forward.
In a statement, the Vatican’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, said when the case returns to a U.S. district court it would show it cannot be held responsible for the actions of the priest as he was not a Vatican employee.
“The decision not to hear the case is not a comment on the merits of our case,” Lena said, adding that the case would now go back to the district court in Oregon.
The lawsuit, filed against the Vatican by a plaintiff identified only as John Doe, claimed he was sexually abused on several occasions in the mid-1960s when he was 15 or 16 by a Roman Catholic priest named Father Andrew Ronan.
According to court documents, Ronan molested boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in Ireland and then in Chicago before his transfer to a church in Portland, Oregon, where he allegedly abused the victim who filed the lawsuit. Ronan died in 1992.
The Vatican claimed immunity under a U.S. law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, that allows foreign states to avoid being sued in court.
But the law contains exceptions. The appeals court cited one of those, ruling the lawsuit has sufficiently alleged that Ronan was an employee of the Vatican acting within the scope of his employment under Oregon law.
The Vatican has said it cannot be seen as a multinational business whose executives can be held ultimately responsible for the action of their subordinates, because dioceses around the world have their own legal status as employers.
It has also said the pope, as head of a sovereign state recognized by more than 170 countries, has diplomatic immunity from prosecution in other countries.
Pope Benedict is struggling to control the damage a sexual abuse scandal has done to the Catholic Church’s image. The crisis has hit the United States and several European countries, including his native Germany.
In his statement, Lena said the Vatican defense would show that Ronan could not be considered an employee of the Vatican.
“In our view, the indicia (signs) of employment are simply not present,” Lena said.
“The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest, and any of the other factors indicating the presence of an employment relationship,” he said.
Lena said the Vatican was not even aware of Ronan’s “very existence” until after the suit was file. Ronan was a member of the Friar Servants of Mary religious order.
Five bishops in Europe have already resigned over the scandal. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.
Earlier this month Benedict begged forgiveness from God and victims of child sexual abuse by priests and vowed that the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.
Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by James Vicini in Washington; Editing by Matthew Jones