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Pedophile lawsuit seeks to hold pope accountable

Immunity may protect the Vatican from facing court action in a child-molestation case filed in Florida.

By Lynn Waddell, / April 4, 2002



ST. PETERSBURG, FLA., AND BOSTON

In another blow to the Roman Catholic Church, two civil lawsuits that allege priest sexual abuse were filed yesterday, this time putting the problem on the doorstep of Pope John Paul II by naming the Holy See as a defendant.

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The suits – one filed in Florida and the other in Oregon – are part of a national flurry of lawsuits that seek accountability for alleged incidents of sexual misconduct by priests. These latest lawsuits, along with two other recently filed suits that level racketeering charges, could determine whether the church at the highest levels can be held accountable for such incidents.

But lawsuits naming the pope have typically not been successful, because church lawyers have argued that the Vatican is a country with sovereign immunity. Thus these cases may test the boundaries of that immunity.

"The question here is whether some exception to the immunity may arise," says Susan Karamanian, a professor of international law at George Washington University School of Law. "A good lawyer is able to see the pope is immune by law, so the question they face is how to plead around that, carve out an exception."

One possible exception may be that, while foreign states are immune to court action for claims arising out of government activities, they are not immune from court action when it comes to claims arising from activities carried on by a private person.

There are also exceptions where damages are sought for personal injury caused by "the tortious act or omission of that foreign state."

The alleged victim in the Florida lawsuit, Rick Gomez, is arguing that the Catholic Church, including the pope, played a role in his molestation by conspiring to conceal criminal wrongdoing. In addition, he's arguing that the Rev. William Burke – also named in the suit – was negligently allowed to continue as pastor at Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa after previous allegations of sexual abuse were made. (The earlier allegations were settled for an unknown sum.)

"The church is hierarchical," says Tom McGowan, one of the lawyers filing the lawsuit. "Nothing can be done without the permission of the bishops and the pope."

Mr. Gomez claims that Fr. Burke engaged in sexual acts with him in the mid-1980s. Gomez, who according to the lawsuit was 14 at the time, waited two years to tell his mother what had happened. His mother then reported the incident to police in Maryland, where they had moved. According to the lawsuit, Burke had also left the St. Petersburg area, having been transferred to New Jersey.

The fact that this case includes a police report is unusual. The church has handled most complaints of sexual abuse internally.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg released a statement saying it feels wrongly named in the lawsuit because Burke was not yet a priest, but still a brother, at the time of alleged misconduct. The school and at that time Burke were not under the authority of the diocese. Instead, the boarding school is owned and operated by the Salesian Society, which is answerable to the order of priests named in the lawsuit.

The order, Salesians of Don Bosco, issued a separate statement. "While we have generally sought to shield other young people from misconduct at the hands of accused Salesians, we have not always done so effectively," Vice Provincial Rev. James Heuser wrote.

The other lawsuit, filed in Portland, Ore., is similar in nature, but the plaintiff is unnamed and the accused priest, the Rev. Andrew Ronan, is deceased. The alleged incidents of molestation occurred in the mid-1960s.

Jeff Anderson, who has represented more than 400 people in abuse cases against churches, has filed similar lawsuits against Catholic priests, but these are the first involving the pope. Mr. Anderson filed a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the Catholic Church in Hannibal, Mo., about two weeks ago, citing antiracketeering statutes and accusing the nation's bishops of conspiring to protect pedophile priests, often by paying off the victims.

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