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 CNS Story:

SCOTUS (UPDATED) Jun-29-2010 (820 words) xxxn

High court won't review case claiming Vatican liable for priest abuser

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Holy See.

By declining to take Holy See v. John Doe, the court June 28 left intact the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said because of the way Oregon law defines employment, the Vatican is not protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from potential liability for the actions of a priest who Doe, the unidentified plaintiff, said sexually abused him in the 1960s.

The case will now go back to U.S. District Court, where Doe's attorneys will attempt to prove that the late Andrew Ronan, a former Servite priest who was laicized in 1966, was a Vatican employee at the time the events took place.

Jeffrey Lena, the California-based attorney for the Holy See, told Catholic News Service June 29 that the court's action in declining to review the case "is not a comment on the merits" of the underlying legal arguments. The Supreme Court is not focused on the merits as the certiorari stage, he noted. Instead, the court's focus is on whether the case assists in unifying federal law and whether it is appropriate to the court's docket for the next term.

Lena said many things can account for the court's reluctance to take the case, not the least of which is that the legal questions it raises have matured to the point where the court can resolve differences which have developed among lower courts about how to apply the law.

As to the next step, Lena explained that the lower courts have not yet fully considered the question of whether Ronan was actually in the employ of the Holy See, making the necessary link to then try to hold the Vatican liable for damages.

"We will, of course, point out to the District Court that the priest in question is not an employee of the Holy See," said Lena, "and that, therefore, the District Court does not have jurisdiction over the case."

In other actions on the final day of the 2009-10 term, the court upheld a 9th Circuit ruling that said the University of California's Hastings College of Law may exclude the Christian Legal Society from campus benefits.

The school had denied campus recognition to the group because the club requires that its voting members sign a statement of faith that rejects "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle." The school said that requirement is inconsistent with a campus policy barring recognition to groups that exclude people because of religious belief or sexual orientation.

The session also was the final day on the bench for Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, who announced his retirement this spring.

The Oregon case involves the efforts of Doe to get compensation from the Vatican for sexual abuse he said was committed by Ronan when he was assigned to St. Albert's Parish in Portland, Ore. Ronan admitted to abusing boys in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, and while assigned at St. Philip's High School in Chicago, before he was posted to Portland. Ronan died in 1992.

When the case returns to the District Court, Doe must first prove that Ronan was an employee of the Holy See, that the Vatican knew of his admitted history of sexual abuse and had a role in his transfer to St. Albert's.

Lena said the only church entity that was aware of Ronan's history of abuse was his religious order, the Servites, which also is being sued by Doe. The Vatican has yet to defend in court against the underlying assumption of Doe's lawsuit.

"The plaintiffs have yet to come up with any evidence that Ronan worked for the Vatican," he said. "They have all the documents from the order and the diocese. None of these bear the fingerprints of the Holy See."

"Far from being an employee, this is a person the Holy See didn't even know existed until after he had committed these acts of abuse," Lena said.

In a second case over liability for the sexual abuse of three men in Kentucky, papers filed June 24 in U.S. District Court in Louisville on behalf of the Holy See argue that there is no legal link between the Vatican and priests who served in Louisville decades ago. That case also revolves around whether the Holy See can even be taken to court in the matter, or if it is protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The filing by the Holy See said, "There is no evidence whatsoever in the archdiocesan files showing that the archbishop was the Holy See's 'employee' or that the archbishop followed a mandatory Holy See policy relating to the handling of child sexual abuse by priests."


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