Friday, March 6, 2009

St. Paul lawyer takes on Vatican

A federal Appeals Court says the Vatican can be sued for sexual abuse if it knowingly reassigns priests who have been accused of such acts in their previous parishes.

"This decision kicks the door open for the survivors of these sexual predators to seek some measure of justice and to hold the Vatican responsible for its role in allowing these priests to continue their pattern of abuse," said Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who filed the suit.

The decision, announced Wednesday morning, was issued late Tuesday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon. It upholds a ruling made by a Portland trial court. Anderson, an expert in priest abuse cases, filed the suit in Oregon because that's where the alleged abuse took place.

The Roman Catholic Church has 90 days to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The next move is up to the Vatican," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardoza School of Law in New York City and a constitutional scholar whom Anderson brought on to help with the appeal. "We're either going to the Supreme Court or back to the trial court. Either way, we're ready."

Whatever happens, Anderson expects it to happen quickly.

"The Holy See filed an appeal [of the trial court decision] within 24 hours," he said.

The suit was filed in 2002 for an unnamed 49-year-old man who alleges he was sexually abused as a teenager by the Rev. Andrew Ronan. Ronan died in 1969. After uncovering evidence that Ronan had been reassigned after being accused of similar abuses in parishes in Chicago and Ireland, Anderson argued that the topmost level of the church should be held liable for damages because it is a hierarchy in which decisions flow down from the Vatican.

"The Vatican should be held responsible for the misdeeds of its employees," he said. "The church knew that he was an offender and had a proclivity to harm again, but his superiors chose not to stop him."

Pope Benedict is not being sued. The suit names the church as the defendant, but the pope could be deposed if the case reaches trial.

"It's time that the Vatican finally is held accountable for its role in this scandal," Anderson said. "For decades, they've issued instructions, they've issued protocol that has allowed priests to be moved across state lines and even international boundaries" after they've been accused of abuse.

The ruling applies only in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court, which includes the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii. A similar case is being argued in Kansas City, but other victims likely will wait to see how this case is resolved, he said.

The ruling is "persuasive but not binding," in other courts, Anderson said. "But with a good chance of going to the Supreme Court, it's going to end up touching every state." Star Tribune

As a point of information, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, covering the west coast states, Alaska and Hawaii, is far and away the most liberal of all of the eleven U.S. appeals courts and its decisions are most often overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court when appealed to that highest court.

Church offiials seem confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn this decision. But vacancies and debilitating illness might occur among the justices and nothing is certain. If this decision is allowed to stand, it will be politically, economically and legally costly to the Church.

However, even as a non-lawyer, I would bet that the Supreme Court wouldn't be able to find evidence that the Vatican is directly involved in the assignment and reassignment of priests in the 180 or so U.S. dioceses. Therefor, the Vatican can't be held guilty over something over which it had no control.

Attorney Jeff Anderson has made a career and a profitable one at that, out of suing the Church in abuse cases. How he could make such an erroneous assertion is beyond me.

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