Vatican Officials Can Be Sued Over Molestation Scandal, Federal Appeals Court Rules

A recent decision by a U.S. appeals court opens the door to lawsuits against the Vatican over Roman Catholic priests who have commited sexual abuse.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that the Vatican can be held liable for negligence in certain cases. Victims of sexual abuse by clergy have charged that church officials engaged in a cover-up and had a policy of reassigning offending priests to other parishes.

Church officials have argued that the “Holy See” – the Vatican’s juridical entity – is a sovereign state and thus is immune from U.S. civil lawsuits. The ruling in the O’Bryan v. Holy See case may mark the first time a federal appeals court has impinged on the Vatican’s sovereignty.

The court rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that the Vatican is not a legitimate foreign state and dismissed large portions of the case. But it determined that the church leadership can be held liable for actions taken in the United States by its employees based on Vatican policies and directives, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Three men who were abused by priests when they were children brought the lawsuit. In their court filings, the plaintiffs cited a 1962 directive from the Vatican ordering church officials not to disclose allegations of sex abuse by priests. The document became public in 2003, and the plaintiffs argue that it proves the Vatican acted with negligence.

“This is an enormously huge moment,” William McMurry, the attorney for the men, told the Associated Press. “We’re finally going to get to the root of the problem.”

McMurry is seeking to turn the legal action into a class-action lawsuit, arguing that there are thousands of victims of clerical sexual abuse in the country. He is also seeking unspecified financial damages from the Vatican and at one point sought to depose Pope Benedict XVI, a request a lower court denied.

In court papers, McMurry argued that the Vatican as a foreign state and the Vatican as a religious entity were separate, but Judge Julia Smith Gibbons rejected this claim.

“[W]e reject plaintiffs’ contention that they are not suing the Holy See that has been recognized by the United States government, but a parallel non-sovereign entity conjured up by the plaintiffs,” Gibbons wrote.

Jeffrey S. Lena, an attorney for the Holy See, downplayed the importance of the ruling, saying the plaintiffs still have many obstacles to overcome to prove that the church hierarchy is liable for the abuse. He called the ruling “very incremental.”

A 1976 law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act governs the circumstances under which a foreign nation or those acting on its behalf can be used in American courts.

The case will now return to a lower court.