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Powerful new legal tool for clergy sex abuse victims

06 may 2011, 16:13
Access to the Vatican's vaults has been a holy grail for those seeking justice for clergy sex abuse victims, and a recent US court ruling has brought them one powerful step closer, AFP reports.

For the first time ever, a civilian court judge has ordered the Vatican to produce documents and answer questions under oath about its role in supervising a priest accused of a long pattern of child sex abuse.

"It's really historic and monumental," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents the victim in the case and has filed thousands of lawsuits on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims over the past 27 years.

"This really changes the legal landscape in terms of what we want to accomplish by holding those at the top -- that is, the Vatican -- responsible and accountable in a way that they haven't been before," Anderson told AFP.

"It creates a crack in the iron door and brings hope not just on this case, but the other cases against the Vatican."

The ruling is relatively limited as US district judge Michael Mosman of Oregon seeks to answer the question of whether Father Andrew Ronan, a Catholic priest, can be considered an employee of the Holy See.

Under US law, the Vatican can be held liable for Ronan's actions if it is found to have an employment relationship with the defrocked priest.

The Vatican has argued that while it may have spiritual authority over priests, temporal issues such as employment are the purview of local dioceses and religious orders.

Mosman gave the Vatican until June 20 to respond to the order to produce documents and answer a number of questions about Ronan and the Church's general policies on the laicization of priests.

The questions concern the handling of sex abuse claims and "regulation of priests' conduct in general, including but not limited to what they wear, the places they go, hours they keep, and where they live."

The Vatican's lawyers are expected to file objections to some of the requests, and the case first filed in 2002 is far from over.

"We will be reviewing the proposed requests with care," said Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer who represents the Holy See in sex abuse litigation in the United States.

Lena acknowledged that it was a significant decision, but said it was far from a major defeat and noted that the judge ruled against the broader requests for documents and information.

"The order embraces that the core issue -- in fact the sole issue in the case -- is whether he was an employee of the Holy See at the time of the events. That, he was not," Lena said in a recent telephone interview.

"When all is said and done, when you peel away all the layers of hyperventilating accusations, the core question is was this guy an employee of the Holy See. He was not."

While the plaintiffs are unlikely to prove employment, "it's certainly feasible," said Charles Zech, head of the Center for the Study of Church Management at the Catholic Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Oregon law has a broad interpretation of the employment relationship, and the plaintiffs will have to prove only that the Vatican is involved in one element in order to open the door to legal liability.

"If they were able to establish that there were an employment relationship it would be devastating to the Vatican, because obviously they have many more resources than any one diocese would," Zech said.

Eight US dioceses have been bankrupted by clergy sex abuse lawsuits, including the diocese of Portland, Oregon where the Ronan case is being tried.

But even if the plaintiffs fail to hold the Vatican liable in this case, the ruling has created a legal precedent which will make it easier to draw the Holy See further into clergy sex abuse cases.

"From the Vatican's perspective, this is a big issue," Zech said. "They never like to open their files to anyone, so even to open it on a limited basis -- that's a big deal."

By Mira Oberman

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