Vatican can be sued for acts of parish priest, appellate panel says

A Portland man can sue the Vatican in a United States court over his alleged molestation as a teenager by a parish priest, a federal appellate panel ruled Tuesday.

Suing for monetary damages as John V. Doe, the man names as a defendant the “Holy See,” meaning the seat of Catholicism, or where the Pope sits.

Defense attorneys argued the Holy See is insulated from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Doe’s claim meets the criteria for an exception to the FSIA.

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

The panel’s opinion turns on the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” Latin for “let the master answer.” The still-valid rule of law is an extension of a Roman doctrine that a master is liable for a servant’s acts.

The judges concluded that, “because Doe has sufficiently alleged that (Father Andrew) 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. Further ? Ronan’s acts come within the FSIA’s ? exception, so the Holy See is not immune from suit.”

The suit alleges the Holy See creates dioceses and archdioceses, gives final approval to the creation, division or suppression of provinces of religious orders, and 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 a 59-page opinion.

Doe 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, where he molested at least three boys and, when confronted, again admitted it, according to Doe’s suit.

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

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

The panel comprised circuit judges Ferdinand F. Fernandez and Marsha S. Berzon and U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II.