Supreme Court allows sex-abuse case to proceed against the Vatican

Supreme Court refuses the Vatican's request for dismissal, allowing a priest sex-abuse case in Oregon to proceed against the Holy See. The complaint seeks money damages from the church.

Molly Riley/Reuters/File
The US Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009. The Supreme Court refuses the Vatican's request for dismissal, allowing a priest sex-abuse case in Oregon to proceed against the Holy See.

The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to examine whether an Oregon resident who allegedly was sexually molested by a Roman Catholic priest as a teenager in the 1960s can sue the Vatican for his abuse. The move allows the litigation to move forward toward a trial.

A federal judge and a federal appeals court had ruled earlier that the lawsuit could go forward. Lawyers for the Vatican, also known as the Holy See, asked the high court to take up the case and dismiss it. They argued that the Vatican could not be held legally responsible for alleged criminal acts undertaken by a priest when those illegal acts were unrelated to his work for the Roman Catholic Church.

At issue was whether the Vatican, a foreign sovereign nation, can be forced to pay money damages to a US citizen for the alleged illegal acts of one of its employees.

Most priests do not have deep pockets to pay such claims. The Vatican does.

Foreign nations are generally immune from lawsuits. But under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Congress said a foreign nation can be sued in a US court if the harmful act was carried out by an official or employee of the foreign state “while acting within the scope of his office or employment.”

“Sexual abuse is clearly outside the scope of a priest’s employment,” Vatican lawyers said in their brief.

The victim is identified in the lawsuit by the pseudonym John V. Doe. His lawyers say the Vatican is partly responsible for the sexual abuse their client endured as a teenager.

According to court documents, the priest, Fr. Andrew Ronan, had admitted to sexually abusing a boy in the Archdiocese of Benburb, Ireland. He was transferred by church officials to the all-boys St. Philips High School in Chicago, where he later admitted to sexually abusing three boys.

Church officials then transferred Ronan to St. Albans Church in Portland, Ore. That’s where he allegedly sexually abused Doe.

Lawyers for Doe concede that sexual abuse is not an authorized part of a priest’s job description. But that doesn’t mean the abuse was unrelated to the priest’s work on behalf of the Catholic Church, they argued.

Ronan used his position as a trusted member of the clergy to gain access to children, they said. He then used the respect and stature granted him by the church to groom Doe for the sexual abuse he was planning, Doe’s lawyers said.

“The trust formed through the performance of Ronan’s spiritual duties as an agent of the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church enabled Ronan to molest [Doe] despite the knowledge of his proclivities by his employer,” wrote lawyer Marci Hamilton in her brief on behalf of Doe.

“The development of a unique bond between Ronan and [Doe] in the course of their relationship as pastor and parishioner created the conditions necessary for the sexually predatory behavior to happen,” she wrote.

The case was Holy See v. John V. Doe.


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