The legal challenges against the Roman Catholic Church, once focused mainly on individual priests and dioceses, are increasingly targeting high church officials for complicity in failing to protect children from sex abuse.
The broadening scope of the lawsuits could pose new political and financial problems for a church in the United States already going through one of the biggest crises in its history.
While suits in the past have named the pope and high church officials in such cases, several new claims include damaging internal documents and letters that, experts say, will test the legal limits of accountability within the church hierarchy.
In just the past two weeks:
A lawsuit filed in Boston produced more than 800 documents showing, lawyers say, that Cardinal Bernard Law and other officials knew for years that former priest Paul Shanley was an alleged child abuser, but they assigned him to churches anyway.
A suit using racketeering laws charged two bishops, a former bishop, and their dioceses in Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee with covering up the sexual abuse of seminary students to keep contributions flowing.
A civil case filed in Florida names the Vatican, the bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla., and a New York order of priests for conspiring to conceal wrongdoing by a priest and negligence for not doing more to stop it. The plaintiff's lawyer says he named the Holy See based on quantities of internal documents that support the conspiracy theory.
The growing number of civil suits comes as prosecutors in several cities across the country are looking at possible criminal action against church officials. At the same time, some states are considering rolling back statutes of limitation on child-sex-abuse crimes a key impediment to prosecution in such cases.
"It is not unlike the Berlin Wall," says Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame University. "Once something begins to crumble, to implode, the process happens quickly."
Proving complicity or coverup in church sex-abuse cases, however, is difficult. While individual priests have long been prosecuted, top officials have been insulated from attack by the argument that they are not responsible for, and cannot control, the actions of a "rogue priest" who goes against church doctrine.
Yet that argument falters if it can be shown church officials knew about a priest's abuse, or had many reasons to believe a priest was an abuser, but assigned him to work with children anyway. Then a different set of standards apply, prosecutors say.
In those circumstances, laws in every state that bar anyone from aiding or abetting criminal acts come into play.
"If church officials did something that helped someone in abusing more children, they may be criminally liable," says Victor Vieth, a child-abuse specialist with the National District Attorneys Association. "If you know someone is a pedophile and has abused dozens of children and you simply send them off to a new parish, you may be intentionally assisting them."
Proving criminality, however, gets complicated because "intent" must be shown. Prosecutors would have to produce hard evidence that top church officials knew that harm would come to children from their conduct.
"You would need a great big paper trail," says Richard Cage, supervisor of the pedophile section of the Montgomery County, Md., police department, who has investigated six priests in the past 12 years. "Without that, most are going to say, 'Well, we put him in therapy, we took appropriate corrective action, then we transferred him. We thought the problem was cured.'"
AS with everything surrounding the current round of sex-abuse scandals, Boston may become the test case in determining how difficult criminal prosecution would be.
The state Attorney General, Thomas Reilly, says he is looking into whether there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Boston archdiocese officials in their handling of Mr. Shanley.
His comments came after the release this week of extensive documentation alleging that Cardinal Law and top aides knew as long ago as 1967 that Shanley had been accused of child molestation by parishioners.
Despite this, the court papers released as part of a civil suit against the diocese show that Shanley was assigned and reassigned for more than 30 years with the blessing of church officials. Earlier, Law and church officials had steadfastly maintained they did not know of the abuse by priests when they reassigned them.
This week, the diocese said "Whatever may have occurred in the past, there were no deliberate decisions to put children at risk."
While the documentation would make it easier for prosecutors to mount a case, experts say it will still be hard to prove criminal liability against Law and his associates.
Still, some church officials around the country are also being charged with civil liability, which is easier to prove. But even here, the suits using the federal racketeering statute known as RICO have a high hurdle to surmount.
Often used in prosecuting organized crime, the RICO law says a pattern of activity can be used to prove criminal conspiracy. But the statute has never worked in a civil sex abuse case against a church. "I take a dim view on the prospects for this kind of a suit," says Michael Mueller, chair of the American Bar Association's civil RICO committee.
But Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has filed more than 400 cases against the Catholic church, including two recent RICO suits naming higher church officials, disagrees "We've been around RICO for a long time, so when we address this," he says, we know we can prove it."