Rice Rejects Vatican Appeal To Help End Sex-Abuse Lawsuit

Officials at the Vatican asked Secre­tary of State Condoleezza Rice if the U.S. government could block a sex-abuse lawsuit filed against the church in Kentucky, but Rice was not receptive to the idea, a Catholic newspaper has reported.

National Catholic Reporter writer John L. Allen Jr., who is based in Rome, wrote in NCRonline.org March 3 that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, made the appeal when Rice visited the Vatican Feb. 8.

Sodano wanted to know if there was anything the U.S. government could do to free the Vatican from a class-action lawsuit pending in a U.S. district court in Louisville, Ky. That litigation seeks to hold the international headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church financially responsible for priestly sexual abuse of minors, NCR reported.

Church sources told Allen that Rice explained to Sodano that the Vatican would have to assert its right to be removed from the lawsuit based on its claim of sovereign immunity. In addition to its religious status, the church claims independent political status as the Holy See. U.S. law permits American citizens to sue foreign nations under certain limited conditions, but few cases are successful.

Allen noted that several sex-abuse lawsuits in U.S. courts name the Vatican as a defendant. He wrote that even though such legal actions are considered long shots, “Sodano’s decision to raise the matter with Rice suggests concern in Rome that sooner or later its immunity may give way, exposing that Vatican to potentially crippling verdicts.”

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told NCR, “It’s obvious and reasonable that the Holy See would present its positions as a sovereign entity to the American State Department and recall the immunity for its acts that international law anticipates.”

In America, the church’s general counsel, Mark Chopko, said the request to Rice was not a big deal. Chopko said he has seen at least two dozen cases of the church being sued in the past 21 years. In those cases, he said, it is routine for the Vatican, through the State Department, to ask the Department of Justice to defend the Vatican’s immunity.

But other legal observers told NCR that the State Department does not like to intervene in such cases and will do so only when there is an “overriding foreign policy interest.”

William F. McMurray, a Louisville attorney who is representing 243 plaintiffs who say they were abused by 38 priests over 30 years, told NCR that he believes the Vatican worked to cover up allegations of sex abuse. McMurray said he would like to depose Vatican officials to find out “what they knew and when they knew it.”

Added McMurray, “This won’t be over until the party who is directly accountable is brought to justice, and in my opinion that’s the Holy See.”