Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, 2010-03-29 (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)A lawsuit filed in Kentucky in 2004 has forced the Roman Catholic Church to offer up legal theories that, it claims, show that it’s immune to a lawsuit over clerical abuse. The AP reports via Google News (locally cached version):

Dragged deeper than ever into the clerical sex abuse scandal, the Vatican is launching a legal defense that the church hopes will shield the pope from a lawsuit in Kentucky seeking to have him deposed.

Court documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press show that Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren’t employees of the Vatican, and that a 1962 document is not the “smoking gun” that provides proof of a cover-up. …

The Vatican is seeking to dismiss the suit before Benedict XVI can be questioned or secret documents subpoenaed.

This isn’t apparently the first U.S. court case to take up this matter:

The United States considers the Vatican a sovereign state — the two have had diplomatic relations since 1984. In 2007, U.S. District Court Judge John Heyburn rejected an initial request by the plaintiffs to depose Benedict.

“They will not be able to depose the pope,” said Joseph Dellapenna, a professor at Villanova University Law School an [sic] author of “Suing Foreign Governments and their Corporations.”

“But lower level officials could very well be deposed and there could be subpoenas for documents as part of discovery,” he said.

Note: The verb “depose” in this story refers — I assume — not to an attempt to remove the Pope from office (i.e. definition #1 from Merriam-Webster’s), but to force him to give a deposition (i.e. definition #3 from the same).

At any rate, the plaintiffs think they have documentary evidence to back up the claim of a cover-up:

Crucial to the Kentucky lawsuit is the 1962 document “Crimen Sollicitationis” — Latin for “crimes of solicitation.” It describes how church authorities should deal procedurally with cases of abuse of children by priests, cases where sex is solicited in the confessional — a particularly heinous crime under canon law — and cases of homosexuality and bestiality.

[Plaintiffs’ attorney William] McMurry argues that the document imposed the highest level of secrecy on such matters and reflected a Vatican policy barring bishops from reporting abuse to police. …

The existence of Crimen did not become publicly known until 2003, when a lawyer noticed a reference to the document while reading a 2001 letter written by Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. McMurry is seeking to subpoena Ratzinger’s letter, which instructed all bishops to send cases of clerical sex abuse to him and to keep the proceedings secret.

Strictly speaking, Crimen sollicitationis deals only with priests’ misconduct in the confessional or during the sacrament of reconciliation (also known as confession and/or penance). Many of the abuse cases that have been reported through the years do not involve the confessional or this sacrament; nevertheless, many Church officials have interpreted this 1962 letter as covering all accusations of abuse by a priest.

This case has already been bumped up to the federal appellate level, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed it to proceed in Kentucky courts again. I expect numerous appeals in this case, up and down through both the commonwealth and federal courts, for years to come. This isn’t over yet … not if the Vatican has anything to say about it.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.