MILWAUKEE (April 23) — The Vatican says a federal lawsuit filed against it, the pope and top church officials in the clergy sexual abuse scandal is simply part of a “broader attack” and is without legitimate legal merit.
But the Minnesota lawyer who filed the lawsuit calls that response “predictable” and tells AOL News that it’s the same argument he heard back in the 1980s when he first began suing U.S. dioceses and bishops over allegations they knew about priests sexually abusing young boys and chose to do nothing about it.
“I was criticized then that it couldn’t be done. But we realized it had to be done, and it was,” Jeff Anderson, who has represented many abuse victims in cases against dioceses, said in a telephone interview today.
“The only reason the pope is not sued more regularly is that legally, it’s a very significant task,” he said. “You’re taking on the most powerful and influential institution in Western civilization. That’s daunting to most, intimidating to everybody. It’s not something everyone has the way or will to do, or the resources to do, either. … But the one thing that has become clear to us over the years is that the problems emanate from there.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, names the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and a former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, as defendants.
It was filed on behalf of an Illinois man, identified only as John Doe 16, who said he was sexually abused by a priest at a suburban Milwaukee Catholic school for the deaf in the 1970s. That priest, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, was accused of sexually abusing about 200 boys at the school from about 1950 to 1974. Murphy died in 1998.
The lawsuit claims that the Vatican knew Murphy was accused of molesting young boys and could have prevented the plaintiff’s abuse had it acted on the allegations. It also claims that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was informed of the serious abuse allegations as early as 1995 and failed to remove Murphy from the clergy.
The lawsuit’s legal standing is founded on the premise that the Vatican is a multinational business taking part in “commercial activity” in the state and across the country and ultimately holds complete power and control over each of the church’s individual dioceses.
The Vatican has said it cannot be seen as a business — with executives who could be held responsible for the action of their subordinates — because its dioceses each have their own legal status. It also has said the pope is head of a sovereign state and has diplomatic immunity.
“The case against the Holy See and its officials is completely without merit. Most of the complaint rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts,” Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed.
“While legitimate lawsuits have been filed by abuse victims, this is not one of them,” he said. “The lawsuit represents an attempt to use tragic events as a platform for a broader attack — this one dependent on re-characterizing the Catholic Church as a worldwide ‘business enterprise.'”
Anderson called Lena’s statement “a predictable response but a non-response.”
“The Vatican is a pure hierarchy,” Anderson said. “The bishop takes a vow of obedience to the Vatican. Structurally, under canon law, it all says that Rome controls.”
The lawsuit notes the church’s commercial nature, including extensive financial operations and fundraising activities. It specifically cites the church’s Peter’s Pence fundraising tradition which, the lawsuit said, raised over $100 million for the Vatican in 2006, with the United States providing the largest percentage of funds.
However, Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean at the Duquesne University School of Law, told The Associated Press that the argument that the Roman Catholic Church is an international commercial business will be difficult to prove.
“He’s alleging an employment relationship between individual priests and the Holy See,” Cafardi told the AP. “I’m sorry, but diocesan priests in the United States are not employees of the Holy See. … If a court were to accept that, they would be creating a new Catholic Church, not the one that exists now.”
But Washington, D.C., attorney Jonathan Levy, a specialist in international law who has tried to sue the Vatican Bank over Holocaust claims, told the AP that Anderson may have found a way to take advantage of exceptions to sovereign immunity.
“I’d say he’s got some new and exciting theories in there why the Vatican should be held responsible for its bad acts,” Levy told the news agency.
Among the legal arguments about the church’s commercial nature and control, the lawsuit includes sobering details of the abuse faced by young boys who were molested by Murphy. The court file includes carefully typewritten letters sent to Murphy by the plaintiff.
“Just tell me one thing. How could you hurt me the way you did? I was just a little kid,” the plaintiff wrote in the 1995 letter to Murphy.
“You were all I had. No one at home signed,” the deaf plaintiff wrote. “I could not communicate with them. I turned to you and what did you do? You molested me, that’s what. You took advantage of a lost little boy who had no one else. Because if you remember, as I do, you told me that my mother no longer loved me. You isolated me from the one person who could possibly have rescued me. I hate you for that.”
The letters are accompanied by a letter written to Sodano, who was then secretary of state, with this request: “Please read them to Pope John Paul.”