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Lawyer wants pope's testimony in Oregon abuse case

Suits name the Vatican as a respondent on grounds that it employed clergy suspected of abuse. Papal spokesmen say it is a sovereign entity and immune from the American court system.

July 10, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Pope Benedict heads the Vatican, an independent city-state that maintains it is not responsible for the actions of abusive priests.
Pope Benedict heads the Vatican, an independent city-state that maintains… (Filippo Monteforte, AFP/Getty…)

Pope Benedict XVI is a head of state and the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide. To Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse by priests, he is also a potential legal witness.

Unlikely as it may seem, Anderson intends to demand the pope's testimony in a sexual abuse case wending its way through court in Oregon.

"I don't think I would require him to come to Oregon," the attorney said in a recent interview. "I would go to him … and videotape and transcribe his testimony." The Vatican, he said, should be treated "like any other corporation that is subject to the power of the American court system."

Increasingly, the Vatican, an independent city-state headed by the pope, stands in the cross hairs of lawyers and investigators probing cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. The church is fighting back, maintaining both that it is not responsible for the actions of abusive priests and that it enjoys sovereign immunity from the U.S. legal system.

Several lawsuits filed in the United States have named the Vatican as a respondent, and attorneys in at least two cases are seeking a court order demanding testimony from the pope, among other top church officials. Police in Belgium last month raided church offices and opened tombs in a search for evidence in abuse cases, prompting Benedict to assail "the surprising and deplorable manner" in which the raids were carried out.

Anderson, who has become the Vatican's leading legal antagonist in the clerical abuse cases, hailed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that dealt a procedural blow to the Vatican in its effort to shield itself from liability. Two days later, Anderson filed a new lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court that targeted the Holy See.

"Look, I've been working with survivors, handling these cases for 25 years, and I knew that all roads in this scandal or crisis, whatever you want to call it, lead to Rome," said Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney. "I feel really resolute about this, and feel that we now have a great deal of legal authority and traction at our feet and wind at our back, and we've never had that before when it comes to the Vatican."

Perhaps, but Anderson and others still face a daunting task in stretching the arms of the U.S. justice system over the walls of the Holy See. The Vatican is in the unique position of being at once a highly complex religious organization and a sovereign nation, both of which make it difficult to penetrate legally.

The church's defenders say that is as it should be. The Vatican, in their view, sets religious policy for the worldwide church but is not involved in day-to-day operations of its far-flung parishes and bears no legal responsibility for abusive priests.

"One of the fundamental issues in all of these cases is that there is a misunderstanding in the popular culture as to the organization of the Catholic Church and the autonomy of its various parts," said Jeffrey S. Lena of Berkeley, the church's American lawyer. "There are assumptions made daily in the press and elsewhere as to the allocation of authority amongst the various entities of the church."

The idea of suing the pope or the Vatican over sexual abuse by priests in the United States, he said, makes no more sense than suing President Obama in a case of abuse by a public school teacher in California.

During a recent interview in his office in Rome, Father Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, was briefly speechless at the idea that the Vatican should turn over its files on sexual abuse cases to law enforcement authorities in the United States and elsewhere, as advocates for victims have demanded.

"I think this argument is rather unrealistic," Lombardi finally said. "If I go to the United States government and ask them to give me all the documents they have, do you think this would be done?… No, I don't see the grounds for such a request."

Lena has laid out the church's legal position in court filings in Oregon and Kentucky, where the Vatican has been named in lawsuits by victims who say they were abused by priests. Essentially, it rests on the Holy See's claim of sovereign immunity, the same claim that could be used by any foreign government that is sued in a U.S. court.

Responding to a demand that the pope and his secretary of state testify in the Kentucky case, Lena said that both men are entitled to "absolute civil and criminal immunity" as heads of state and government. (The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is the equivalent of a prime minister, he said.)

Lawyers for abuse victims have sought to breach that barrier by claiming that the Vatican falls under multiple exceptions to the sovereign immunity rule.

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