In legal first, ex-Portland man wins right to sue vatican

by Michelle Roberts, The Oregonian

Oregon has found itself at the center of an international story after a federal appellate court ruled that a former Portland man can sue the Vatican in a U.S. court over his alleged molestation as a teenager by a parish priest.

It is the first time in history that a victim has won this right. The decision also means that top Catholic officials may be deposed for Rome’s role in the case.

Victims have long argued that in a rigid hierarchy such as the Catholic Church, decisions come from the Vatican and, therefore, Rome should be held responsible for ongoing coverups of clergy sex crimes.

But defense attorneys for the Vatican argued that the Holy See is insulated from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled last week that the claim by the plaintiff, known only as Doe, meets the criteria for an exception to the act.

The Roman Catholic Church has 90 days to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“For years, I never felt like we had the case to take on the Vatican,” said Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul, Minn., attorney who filed the suit in 2002 for Doe, who alleges he was sexually abused as a teenager in Portland by the Rev. Andrew M. Ronan, who has since died.

“But when this one emerged, we felt this might be a chance, and this survivor had the courage to allow us to take it on,” Anderson said. “Now, seven years later, here we are. It is really a landmark decision, not just for him, but for kids across the country and maybe worldwide.”

Anderson, an expert in priest abuse cases for the past 25 years, filed the suit in Oregon because that’s where the alleged abuse took place.

Bud Bunce, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Portland, which covers western Oregon, declined to comment.

The suit seeks money damages for personal injury in this country caused by the deliberate act of an official or employee of a foreign state while acting within the scope of his office or employment. That, the judges found, opens the door to Holy See liability.

“Because Doe has sufficiently alleged that Ronan was an employee of the Holy See acting within the ‘scope of his employment’ under Oregon law, Ronan’s acts can be attributed to the Holy See for jurisdictional purposes,” the ruling stated. “Further, Ronan’s acts come within the FSIA’s exception, so the Holy See is not immune from the suit.”

The suit also alleges that the Holy See creates dioceses and archdioceses, gives final approval to the creation, division or suppression of provinces of religious orders, and that it employed and placed Ronan in the Portland Archdiocese in Oregon.

“These acts do establish jurisdiction over the Holy See for the claims to which the acts are relevant,” the judges concluded in the 59-page opinion.

Anderson said the ruling, if it stands, will allow accountability at the highest levels of church hierarchy.

“It means that survivors — and this one in particular — have a real chance of holding those responsible at the top of the pyramid accountable in a very meaningful way,” Anderson said, adding that he hoped the ruling would be a “day of reckoning” for the Vatican. “They may begin to change a culture of secrecy, control and a culture that avoids scandal at all costs.”

The ruling stirred old wounds in a city that has long been a legal battlefield between alleged sex abuse victims and the Catholic Church.

The suit alleges that in the mid-1950s, while Ronan was a parish priest in Ireland, he molested a minor and admitted it. He was removed and placed at St. Philip’s High School in Chicago in the early 1960s, where he molested at least three boys and, when confronted, again admitted it, according to Doe’s suit.

About 1965, when Doe was 15 or 16, Ronan was placed at St. Albert’s Church, which closed decades ago, in Portland, where Doe came to know him “as his priest, counselor and spiritual adviser,” the suit says.

The suit claims the sexual contact occurred “in several places, including the monastery and surrounding areas.”

The case isn’t the first time Portland has found itself at the heart of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

The Rev. Maurice Grammond, who died in 2002, was accused of molesting more than 40 boys in Portland during his career.

In 2000, the Portland Archdiocese settled with 25 of the disgraced priest’s accusers for an undisclosed sum. Facing mounting financial pressure from lawsuits filed by victims of sexually abusive priests, the Portland Archdiocese filed bankruptcy in 2004.

The bankruptcy settlement paid more than $50 million to 175 people who said they were sexually abused by clergy going back more than 50 years. The plan set aside an additional $20 million for people who have not yet come forward with sexual abuse claims.

Bill Crane, 43, Oregon director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he hopes last week’s ruling will cause Pope Benedict XVI to “rein in” his defense lawyers, stop the delaying tactics and honor his own admonition to “do everything possible” to help child sex abuse victims heal.

“If he really wants to do what he said he did during his visit to the United States last year — promote reconciliation and healing — he will not appeal this ruling,” said Crane, a landscaper and priest abuse survivor from Sandy. “It’s time for the Vatican to stop the hardball tactics, the stonewalling and the appealing. Just let this man have his day in court.”