Lawsuit claims church protected abusive Salesian priest with transfers to three continents

LOS ANGELES (AP) – A California man who alleges he was abused in the 1960s by a priest who belonged to the Salesian order of the Roman Catholic church filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the order and the Vatican, claiming officials covered for the cleric by shuffling him between three continents over three decades.

The lawsuit filed in Superior Court claims the Rev. Titian “Jim” Miani abused children in Italy, Canada and California, including at least 12 alleged victims at a Catholic high school in Bellflower, a suburb of Los Angeles.

“The reason Miani has been allowed to remain as a priest and was moved from continent to continent, from country to country, and parish to parish … is because the Vatican and the Vatican officials have chosen to protect him and their reputation,” Jeff Anderson, the plaintiff’s attorney, said at a news conference.

Vatican attorney Jeff Lena said the lawsuit was based on general and vague allegations and was weak on evidence. He also questioned the legal merits of the suit, which was filed in state court but attempts to sue the Vatican in Rome.

John Cattalini, a lay employee who answered the phone at the Salesians’ provincial headquarters in San Francisco, said no one was available to comment.

Efforts to reach Miani, who has an unlisted number in Stockton, were unsuccessful.

The plaintiff, who was not identified, decided to file the lawsuit after reading news coverage in 2008 of other cases involving Miani. That year, the Salesian Society of Catholic priests reached a $19.5 million settlement with 17 plaintiffs who alleged they were abused by the priest.

Prosecutors earlier dismissed criminal charges against Miani after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that a state law extending the window for filing charges in some sex abuse cases was unconstitutional.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges the first molestation by Miani occurred in Perdonone, Italy, in 1947. The situation was reported to church authorities, who sent Miani to Brazil to perform missionary work with children before transferring him to California, where he was ordained as a priest.

In 1955, Miani was transferred to Edmonton, Canada, where the lawsuit alleges he molested children at a boarding school for Native American boys. Miani was then returned to the Catholic high school in Bellflower, Calif.

Miani ended up at the Diocese of Stockton after 11 different assignments throughout California, Anderson said.

The attorney said the priest, now in his early 80s, has retired but has not been defrocked.

Miani lives independently in Stockton and is not allowed to function as a priest, say Mass or wear a priestly collar, said Sister Terry Davis, the diocese spokeswoman. Davis did not know when he was removed from duty.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a Vatican appeal in an Oregon case also filed by Anderson that also named the Holy See as a defendant. The lawsuit was filed in 2002 by a man who claimed the Rev. Andrew Ronan molested him in the late 1960s.

Ronan was removed from the priesthood in 1966 and died in 1992, according to the Archdiocese of Portland.

The high court’s decision not to stop the lawsuit means the case can proceed to the next phase in an Oregon district court.

Anderson argues that priests are Vatican employees for the purpose of American law. If the trial judge agrees, that would constitute an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, under which the Vatican has been immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

Anderson said the Miani suit in Los Angeles uses similar legal theories based on California, not Oregon, law.

Lena, the Vatican attorney, countered that the court action in the Oregon case does not mean Anderson will succeed in pursuing the California case.

“If it is really a case against the Holy See, as the attorneys claim, then they have mistakenly filed their action in a state court rather than a federal court, where it belongs,” Lena said in an e-mail.

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