Monday, March 29, 2010

US sex abuse lawsuits target Holy See

AT FIRST it was an American problem.

Then an Irish problem.

But as the scandal of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests has rocked continental Europe in recent weeks, observers inside and outside the church have begun to recognise that it is now very much a Vatican problem.

''The focus now is on Benedict,'' the US-based National Catholic Reporter wrote last week in a strongly worded editorial on the scandal.

''What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?''

In a note read on Vatican radio on Saturday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi spoke about the recent news coverage of a widening abuse scandal in Europe, including revelations that appeared in The New York Times.

''The nature of the question is such as to attract the attention of the media, and the way in which the church deals with it is crucial for her moral credibility,'' he said.

In 1985, the first rumblings of the sexual abuse crisis occurred in the US when a Louisiana priest pleaded guilty to 11 counts of molestation.

As more cases came to light in the 1990s and 2000s, the Vatican attitude was clear: something was wrong with America.

When, in 1993, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls spoke out about the crisis in the US, he said: ''One would have to ask if the real culprit is not a society that is irresponsibly permissive, hyper-inflated with sexuality [and] capable of creating circumstances that induce even people who have received a solid moral formation to commit grave moral acts.''

No one is singling out the US that way now.

And Pope Benedict's statements suggest he sees the gravity of the situation.

Part of the reason for that may be that US activists are closer than ever to holding the Holy See accountable in a US courtroom.

Two federal appeals courts in recent months have allowed sexual abuse lawsuits against the Vatican to proceed in Oregon and Kentucky.

The Kentucky case involves three people who alleged they were abused by three different priests between the 1920s and 1970s.

The Oregon case involves a person allegedly abused in 1965 by a priest who was moved from Ireland to Chicago to Portland - and who was accused of abusing along the way.

Vatican lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the Oregon case.

Lawyers for both sides in the Oregon proceedings were in Washington two weeks ago making their arguments before a roomful of government officials, who could wind up weighing in if the Vatican - considered a foreign country with immunity to lawsuits - is found a liable party in an American case.

If the Supreme Court declines to take up the case and the lawsuits proceed, lawyers could begin subpoenaing decades of documents and calling Vatican officials under oath.

Correspondence between the Vatican and US clergy has always been subject to subpoena if the documents are located in the US, attorneys say.

In the Oregon case, lawyers are arguing that priests around the world are employees of the Pope, for whom he is responsible.

William McMurry, who is representing alleged abuse victims in the Kentucky case, said: ''We're trying to get what's never been uncovered before - documents only the Vatican has. That's the linchpin of liability.''

David Quinn, former editor of the weekly Irish Catholic newspaper and a religious affairs columnist in Ireland, said: ''There is a bushfire raging and it's gone beyond [the Pope's] capacity to put it out.''
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