PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — An Oregon federal judge ruled Aug. 20 that the Vatican was not the employer of a priest accused of molestation and dismissed a 10-year-old attempt to hold the Holy See liable for sexual abuse.
The lawsuit filed by a Portland-area man attempted to hold the Vatican responsible for him being molested in the 1960s by the late Father Andrew Ronan, a one-time member of the Servite religious order. But the judge said he couldn’t find an employment link in the facts and therefore, under the sovereign immunity law, the U.S. court has no jurisdiction.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman said “there are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See,” according to an Associated Press report on what Mosman said from the bench.
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s Berkeley, Calif.-based attorney, told Catholic News Service that the ruling was particularly important.
“As the judge stated in open court, he had studied the facts of the case with great care,” Lena said. “He recognized the importance of the case.”
Jeff Anderson, attorney for the plaintiff, listed as John V. Doe, said in a press release that they would appeal.
“Judge Mosman’s thoughtful remarks from the bench clearly expressed his difficulty in deciding the case,” Anderson’s press release said. “He referred to the case as very troubling and a close call.”
Lena said Anderson’s description of the judge’s remarks was misleading. “He did not say it was a close call on whether Ronan was an employee. That was not a close call.” On that issue, the central point of the case, “he said the plaintiffs had not really produced any solid facts to support their theory.”
Mosman ruled that there was insufficient evidence to find that the Vatican has both direct and operational control over priests in the United States.
Anderson’s statement suggested he’s unwilling to concede that point. “We believe that under further scrutiny, the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy and concealment practiced by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States.”
In an unusually structured Aug. 20 hearing, Mosman opened the session by announcing that he was inclined to rule in favor of the Holy See and explained his rationale, offering Anderson the chance in the courtroom to expand upon the reams of pages of documents and testimony that he had reviewed.
“He gave the parties ample opportunity to express their views and discuss the evidence before the court,” Lena said.
Mosman said that while a priest clearly functions under obligations and rules set by the Holy See, the relationship is not that of employee-employer. He compared the situation to that of attorneys and the state bar association, which sets rules for practicing law, but does not actually employ all the state’s attorneys.
Lena said the judge “indicated that there could be kinds of control … such as general standards or even very detailed control as in the case of the bar association controlling attorneys, but it is not the kind of control that is commensurate with employment.”
By dismissing the Holy See from the lawsuit, the judge left just one defendant in the case, the Servite order, according to The Oregonian newspaper. The Chicago and Portland archdioceses, where Ronan worked, previously were dismissed as defendants.
The one-time Servite priest admitted sexually abusing minors in Ireland and Chicago before he was laicized in 1966. He died in 1992.
Lawsuits in other cases against the Holy See filed by Anderson in Kentucky and Wisconsin have been dropped in the last few years.
Some peculiarities of Oregon employment law gave a lawsuit in that state some different characteristics than other states.
In earlier actions, the Holy See had claimed sovereign immunity and sought to have the suit dismissed. Mosman, in a 2006 ruling and then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009 ruled against the immunity claim.
In 2010, the Holy See asked the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit ruling. Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal urged the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling on the basis that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act exempted the Holy See from tort claims. The lower courts had found that Oregon’s broad definition of “scope of employment” might apply.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thereby returning the matter to the District Court for consideration. Lena explained that Mosman then was faced with deciding whether, under Oregon law, an employment relationship existed.
To do so, the court had at its disposal all of the materials the Holy See could provide about Ronan and his assignments, Lena said.
“The court examined those documents and the outcome was that there was no evidence that the Holy See was the employer of Ronan, or that it transferred Ronan, or that it knew of the abuse in question until after the abuse had taken place in 1965,” Lena said. “The Holy See only learned of the abuse in 1966,” after which Ronan was quickly laicized.
Finding that there was no employment relationship, Mosman concluded the court had no jurisdiction over the Holy See and dismissed the case.