St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson just scored the biggest win to date in his quarter-century campaign to hold the highest reaches of the Catholic Church responsible for sexual abuse by clergy.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal by the Vatican of a federal appeal court decision (PDF) that it is not immune from liability in a case Anderson has been pursuing for eight years.
“Today’s action by the justices is an answer to the prayers of literally thousands of survivors of sexual abuse who finally have a real shot at obtaining justice, and the truth, about the complicity of Vatican leaders in covering up the criminal acts of Catholic priests against innocent children,” Anderson said Monday in a statement. “Finally, we have achieved a chance for justice, accountability and healing.”
A string of court victories
For Anderson, long derided as a gadfly on a crusade to bring down the Catholic Church, it’s the latest in a string of victories that started in March with the release of documents in a Wisconsin case that revealed that Benedict XVI as a Vatican official before becoming pope had intervened in an investigation of a priest accused of molesting some 200 pupils at a Milwaukee school for the deaf.
In the wake of that revelation, Anderson, who has made a practice of looking for new legal theories to test, filed a second suit against the Vatican, sparking a flurry of headlines around the world. U.S. attorneys for the Vatican accused Anderson of grandstanding, noting that all past cases filed against the Holy See in this country had been thrown out.
The Supreme Court decision comes at a time when Vatican officials are on the defensive about their handling of an 8-year-old sex abuse scandal. Several European bishops have been forced to resign, and U.S. bishops are watching closely as lawsuits holding them responsible for covering up abuses begin to move through the court system.
Vatican attorneys have long argued that as a sovereign state, the Holy See cannot be sued for sexual abuses in this country.
Anderson, who has filed literally thousands of cases against clergy and church officials over the last 25 years, disagreed. Because the alleged abuses were committed by clergy acting within their duties, the current case qualified for an exception to the immunity law that holds governments responsible when they are employers, the lower court had said.
A professor who teaches international law and international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, Jennifer Green has followed several of Anderson’s cases closely. The Ninth Circuit opinion was very thoroughly reasoned, she said.
“It wasn’t just some vendetta against the Vatican,” she said. “It was a very careful application of the law.”
The practice of moving priests accused of sex abuses from one diocese to another is widespread, she noted, and in instances where it’s clear the Vatican knew about it, church leaders should be held accountable.
It’s unclear whether the high court’s decision will open the gates to a flood of new suits against church higher-ups — or even smooth the path for Anderson’s other suit against the Vatican.
A change in judicial attitudes?
Attorneys in other parts of the country who also sue on behalf of abuse victims say the decision — and the mounting tenor of the ongoing scandal — may signal a change in judicial attitudes.
Monday’s action involves John Doe v. Holy See, a case filed in 2002 in Oregon by a Seattle-area man who said he was molested several times in Portland in the late 1960s by the Rev. Andrew Ronan. According to the suit, church officials first became aware Ronan had abused boys while he was ministering in Ireland in the 1950s.
After the complaints were lodged, Ronan’s higher-ups transferred him to a Catholic high school in Chicago, where he is believed to have molested three boys, Doe claims.
“Confronted with allegations of abuse, Ronan admitted to molesting the boys,” the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, summarizing Doe’s allegations. “The Chicago Bishop, ‘acting in accordance with the policies, practices, and procedures’ of the Holy See, did not discipline or remove Ronan from his post.”
At some point, church officials moved Ronan to Portland, where he allegedly abused Doe. Ronan died in 1992, more than 25 years after being removed from the priesthood. Anderson filed suit on Doe’s behalf in 2002.
Past lawsuits against the Vatican had been thrown out in the early stages. As a sovereign state, the Holy See typically enjoys diplomatic immunity in U.S. courts. But Anderson argued that priests are employees or officials of the church, constituting an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.
An Oregon judge rejected the Vatican’s argument that it had immunity in the case. The church appealed, but in March 2009, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the case qualified for an exception. If true, Doe’s claims suggested “direct [Vatican] liability based on the Holy See’s own negligence in retention and supervision of Ronan, and its failure to warn of his ‘dangerous proclivities.’ “
In addition, the appeals court ruled, “Defendant Holy See promotes and safeguards the morals and standards of conduct of the clergy of the Catholic Church.”
In May, the Obama Administration filed a brief siding with the Vatican’s position on immunity but argued that the high court need not take up the issue “at this time.” On Monday, the justices announced they would not hear the Vatican’s appeal.
Church attorney Jeffrey Lena has said Ronan’s existence was unknown to Vatican officials, who are not responsible for individual diocesan priests. Rome does not pay their salaries, provide benefits or control clergy’s day-to-day working conditions, he has noted.
The decision means the case can now move forward in district court in Portland.
Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.