Attorney: Lawsuit against Vatican will be long and hard battle

The Vatican has been served with court papers related to allegations in a sexual abuse case. St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson said this week he was notified that the papers were successfully filed through official diplomatic channels.

The lawsuit was filed nearly a year ago in federal court on behalf of Terry Kohut, now of Chicago. It claims Pope Benedict and two other top Vatican officials knew about allegations of sexual abuse at St. John’s School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee, and called off internal punishment of the accused priest, the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy.

Attorney Jeff Anderson spoke with MPR’s Morning Edition about the case.

Cathy Wurzer: The Vatican declined the papers before. What changed this time?

Jeff Anderson: Protocol requires us to give them an opportunity to accept them in the first instance. When we did present them to them in that course, they responded with saying ‘we don’t want this’ and returned it to us. Thus we had to go through the State Department and effectuate and get the service process that we just did.

Wurzer: So the State Department notified you to say these papers have been served?

Anderson: Correct.

Wurzer: What about the Vatican’s status as a sovereign state? Does that factor in how this could get tried in a court of law?

Anderson: We’ve already gone through that process. In 2002 we brought suit on behalf of another courageous survivor. They claimed to be a sovereign and thus couldn’t be sued. That went all the way through the courts out of a case we were doing in Oregon, through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and got sent back saying they can’t claim sovereign immunity in instances such as this.

Wurzer: The Vatican argues it’s not liable for sex abuse cases under canon law, and also their church structure that holds bishops, not Rome, responsible for disciplining pedophile priests. What’s your argument against that?

Anderson: They have argued and denied responsibility for the problems and the scope of the problems from the outset. The reality is, and all the evidence has shown for 27 years of having assembled it that all roads lead there. All the decisions about how to handle crimes of sexual abuse by clerics, by bishops, by cardinals and by archbishops are mandated by the papacy, by the pope, and out of the Vatican. They have their own laws, they have their own protocols, and they have iron-fisted practices that demand secrecy, and it is thus that requirement of secrecy concerning clerical crimes that makes every cleric and top clerics across the globe have to follow that mandate. Thus it’s our belief in this lawsuit among one other that really tries to hold them to some measure of accountability so children are better protected in the future than they have been in the past.

Wurzer: But because of this demand for secrecy, doesn’t it make your task more difficult to prove guilt?

Anderson: The Vatican is an enormously powerful organization. It’s not only a state, but it’s the most powerful religion in Western civilization. Of course it’s difficult. But that should not daunt any of us from addressing the enormous problem of worldwide, global sexual abuse and the cover up of it and secrecy pertaining to it. And until we hold them accountable for dealing with sexual abuse the same way we do other citizens and corporations in this country and others, this enormous problem continues. So yes it’s hard. Yes, it’s never been done. But it is a moral and legal imperative that there be some change at the top and until there is, there’ll be no changes at the bottom, and our kids remain in great peril.

Wurzer: What does justice look like for your client?

Anderson: For Terry Kohut and the other survivors, to them first they want other kids to be protected much better than they were. That’s what he wanted. Terry Kohut was at the deaf school at St. John’s-Milwaukee, placed there, and very vulnerable being deaf himself and so many of the kids there. Lawrence Murphy, the priest in charge, abused him and by the archdiocese records over 200 kids. He came to realize that and in 1995 actually wrote Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Sodano when he got no response saying ‘please remove this priest.’ They turned a blind eye to that plea. What he really wants when he seeks justice here is then to change the secrecy protocols to come clean with all the documents and secrets that they have concerning clerical crimes across the globe, not just in the U.S., and then to do something about not letting this continue to happen to so many other kids. To this date, they really have not changed those secrecy protocols. The Vatican has not responded in any significant way in terms of the practices they employ and require worldwide, and in the final analysis to him, there will be a measure of justice when he knows that the kids are safer.

Wurzer: Because the papers have been served, have you heard from the Vatican yet?

Anderson: Not yet. But if the past is prologue, they will take the same position as they did and have in Portland, Ore. They will obstruct, they will deny and they will delay, and they will fight, they will fight hard any measure of accountability at the top. It’s taken us eight years to get that case off the ground, and I’m expecting this one to be a long and hard battle to fight in the courts. But we are undaunted, and he is courageous and many stand behind him, and it’s just a moral and legal imperative that there be some change at the top there and in how they act — not what they say but how they act — so that in the final analysis there is a much safer environment, not just in this country but across the globe.

(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)