PORTLAND, Ore. — After the withdrawal of yet another abuse lawsuit against the Vatican, the Holy See’s lawyer said that such efforts are based on “erroneous ideas about the Catholic Church” that unravel under close scrutiny.
Jeffrey Lena, the U.S. counsel for the Holy See, said the case John V. Doe v. Holy See is “the third case of its kind against the Holy See to disintegrate in the face of legal and factual challenge.”
He said the lawsuit “should never have been filed” and that it was based on “factual misstatements and fallacious syllogisms that misled the public for years.”
He said other cases against the Vatican begin with “very strong complaints” stating apparent facts about Vatican involvement in local Church matters and priestly conduct.
But careful legal analysis and examination of these cases, Lena told Vatican Radio, made it clear they were “not sustainable.”
The newly dismissed case involves an Oregon man who said he was sexually abused by a priest almost 50 years ago, according to The Associated Press. The priest, Father Andrew Ronan of the Friar Servants of Mary, abused children in Ireland and Chicago. He was transferred to Portland, where he allegedly molested the plaintiff John Doe in 1965, when Doe was 15.
The priest left the priesthood in 1966, after the Archdiocese of Portland began proceedings against him. The priest was laicized, and he died in 1992.
The plaintiff reached a settlement with the priest’s religious order. He and his lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson of Minnesota, contended that the Vatican approved the transfers and was legally liable for his behavior.
The Vatican said that it learned of the priest’s actions after he came to Portland and that it does not control individual priest's movements.
Anderson said his client had decided “that we should pursue this effort, but through other means and not his case.”
Lena told Vatican Radio the lawsuit wrongly assumed that the Holy See controls all priests, that the Vatican receives information about all priests’ activities and makes “specific decisions” about them either directly or indirectly through dioceses and religious orders.
He said that the lawsuit assumed that if this control was present then the Holy See should be responsible for priests’ sex abuse.
“The problem with the plaintiff’s theory is fairly straightforward: This is not how the Catholic Church works,” Lena said.
He said that local superiors have control over priests and make decisions about their placement.
“Priests are not ‘employees’ of the Holy See by virtue of their clerical status, and the Holy See does not receive and maintain information on all the world’s priests or on all the sexual abuse cases relating to priests throughout the world,” Lena said.
He said the plaintiff’s attorneys had argued that the court could intervene because charitable contributions to the Peter’s Pence fund constitute commercial activity on the part of the Holy See and because priests solicit the contributions.
In August 2012, a federal judge dismissed John V. Doe’s lawsuit on the grounds that the Vatican was not an employer of the accused ex-priest. Doe was appealing the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when he asked for it to be withdrawn.
His suits against the Diocese of Portland and the Archdiocese of Chicago were dismissed several years ago.
Lena said both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have provided “moral leadership” in acknowledging the problem of abuse and in setting expectations that national bishops’ conferences must create “solid frameworks” to prevent abuse and raise awareness about it.
“We have seen the widespread damage that abuse has done to bodies and souls. The harm has been great. In some areas, pews have been abandoned over this issue. And yet there is much room for hope and renewal,” the Holy See’s lawyer said.
Lena said that dioceses with “aggressive programs of abuse awareness and prevention” have caused “real change.”
He said sex abuse can be “constructively addressed” when it is “openly acknowledged and confronted.” He said he hopes the Catholic Church will come to be looked upon for its “models of prevention” and will never again be “sources of scandal.”