An attorney for a man who claims he was sexually abused by an Oregon priest in the 1960s said Monday that the Vatican failed to produce all court-ordered documents in the case, and that papers it did turn over show how the Vatican exercises firm control over the placement and removal of offending priests.
Both claims were quickly disputed by a church lawyer who said the Vatican gave Minnesota-based attorney Jeffrey Anderson all its documents pertaining to the late Rev. Andrew Ronan. Anderson has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a man who alleges Ronan abused him when he was assigned to Portland, Ore.
The Vatican gave Anderson more than 1,800 pages of documents last Friday, marking the first time the Vatican provided documents in response to a sex abuse lawsuit. But Anderson claims that relevant documents written by Vatican officials were left out because local dioceses have produced their own copies of such paperwork in this and other cases.
Anderson, who has filed numerous lawsuits nationwide on behalf of alleged victims of priest abuse, is trying to hold the Vatican responsible under U.S. and Oregon law for the abuse alleged by a Washington state man identified only as John V. Doe. He argues that the Vatican was effectively Ronan’s employer when the alleged abuse occurred in the mid-1960s. Ronan died in 1992.
An employment relationship could trigger an exception to a federal law that usually bars lawsuits against foreign sovereign entities such as the Vatican.
“This is a monarch known as the Holy See, or the Holy Father, who runs the Vatican. And all policies, all protocols, all the laws pertaining to the control of priests and sexual abuse come from the top,” Anderson said during a news conference at his St. Paul offices.
Anderson acknowledged that much of what was in the released documents was already in the public domain, but said the documents show that the Vatican makes the decisions and establishes and enforces policies that concern each priest worldwide, “and this priest in particular.”
The Vatican’s attorney, Jeffrey Lena, of Berkeley, Calif., insisted that Anderson received “all known documents relating to Ronan held by the Roman Curia.” He called Anderson’s news conference “yet another unfortunate attempt to mislead the public.”
Anderson said he planned to go back to court to try to force more documents out of the Vatican.
“We will not rest. We will move forward with required revelations so that children are better protected tomorrow than they have been in the past,” he said.
The Vatican posted about 70 pages of documents related to Ronan on the Internet last Wednesday, followed by a larger turnover of more than 1,800 pages to Anderson on Friday.
Lena said the documents released last Wednesday showed that the Vatican was unaware of the allegations against Ronan until church officials in the U.S. asked for permission to remove him from his priestly duties. He suggested that Anderson was displaying “ignorance” or “willful blindness” when he said the Vatican exercises a monarch’s control over U.S. dioceses or religious orders.
Lena also said it was premature for Anderson to draw firm conclusions about what was in the 1,800 pages of documents, given that many of them are in Latin. He said it took defense attorneys months to go through the material.
“After two days, I can guarantee he has no idea what’s in there,” Lena said.
Ronan left the priesthood in 1966 shortly after the Portland archdiocese began a proceeding against him known as “laicization,” a process the church does not consider equivalent to firing. The Vatican approved his return to lay status.
The documents released last Wednesday showed that officials of Ronan’s order, the Friar Servants of Mary, knew about abuse allegations against him as early as 1959 and worried about the possibility of a scandal as they transferred him twice.
Lena said the documents prove that nobody in the church outside the order knew about the abuse until Ronan and the order petitioned for his laicization and forwarded their internal documents to the Vatican in 1966.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York who’s assisting Anderson on the case, said individual employees can have multiple employers under Oregon law that control various aspects of their employment. She said employers don’t need to oversee every detail about someone’s job to be legally considered an employer.
Anderson acknowledged that the Vatican can’t manage every priest around the world, so it delegates authority to bishops, archbishops, cardinals and heads of religious orders. But he said the pope holds the final authority to remove abusive priests.
Lena noted that a federal appeals court earlier shot down Anderson’s argument that the Friar Servants of Mary acted as an agent of the Vatican.