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U.S. court rules abuse victim may sue Vatican for liability and fraud

Lawyers for a man alleging sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest in the 1960s have argued that the Vatican should be held accountable because church decisions are issued from Rome.

March 05, 2009|Manya A. Brachear

CHICAGO — A federal appeals court ruling has brought an Oregon man one step closer to suing the Vatican for sexual abuse he says he suffered by a Roman Catholic priest.

In a 59-page decision issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the man -- who says he was molested in the 1960s by a priest at a Catholic school -- can pursue a civil lawsuit against the Holy See because the priest allegedly abused him while serving in a religious capacity.

Lawyers for the plaintiff hailed the ruling as a watershed moment for victims of clergy abuse, who for decades have wanted to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for protecting priests.

A lawyer for the Holy See commended the ruling for acknowledging the Vatican's decentralized structure.

"They have been choosing for years . . . to protect the clerics and not the kids," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer representing the Oregon man. "This really is another step forward, another door open. . . . The good news for the laity, the community of faith, the parishioners and all of us is that the Vatican can now be held accountable."

Although the ruling does not permit victims to sue Pope Benedict XVI, Anderson said he intended to depose the pontiff.

The case involves the late Rev. Andrew Ronan, a Servite priest who, according to victims' lawyers, was sent to Chicago after being accused of molesting children in his native Ireland. Archdiocesan officials said Ronan worked for St. Philip High School on Chicago's West Side from 1960 through 1965. He was then transferred to a Catholic school in Oregon, where he reportedly assaulted the plaintiff in the case. St. Philip closed in 1970. Ronan died in 1992.

Officials from the Servite order did not return calls seeking comment.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who assisted in the plaintiff's case, commended the ruling as a model of how the American judicial system is supposed to work, likening the triumph to the biblical story of David vs. Goliath.

"The fact that the United States courts have opened this opportunity in this case sets the standard for the whole world that there really can be justice for one victim even though he's a victim of one powerful organization," Hamilton said. "We now have a template for understanding that anyone who harms our children in the U.S. is going to be held accountable whether they're sovereign or not."

But Jeffrey Lena, a California lawyer who represented the Holy See, said the ruling favored the Vatican by recognizing that every action everywhere could not be traced directly to Rome.

"The court did recognize, based on the plaintiff's complaint, that within the Catholic Church there exists different and separate legal entities," he said.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that a lawsuit filed against the Vatican by three men alleging they were abused by clergy could continue. The lawyer in that case is seeking class-action status, saying there are thousands of victims nationwide.

Some legal scholars say the rulings are not the last word and expect the 9th Circuit Court's ruling to be overturned by the Supreme Court.

But G. Robert Blakey, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said that if the plaintiff could prove that the priest was an employee of the Vatican, the ruling would stand.

"Is the Vatican potentially liable for child molesting? The answer to that question is yes if and only if you can show that the priest was engaged in conduct as an employee of the Vatican," Blakey said.

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mbrachear@tribune.com

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