Commenting on the Supreme Court ruling earlier this week that allowed a lawsuit against the Holy See to continue, U.S. Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena spoke to CNA, clarifying that the move had nothing to do with and “is not a comment” on the individual merits of the case.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an immunity appeal by the Holy See in a case that attempts to sue the Vatican for transferring a priest accused of sexually abusing a minors several decades ago. The ruling by the Supreme Court allows the case to move forward.
An anonymous plaintiff from Oregon filed suit against the Vatican in 2002 after Fr. Andrew Ronan, an Irish priest with a history of sexually abusing minors, was transferred from Ireland to the U.S. and eventually moved to the Portland, Oregon. According to Reuters news agency, Fr. Ronan died in 1992.
The plaintiff says he was abused by Fr. Ronan several times in the mid 1960s and has filed suit against the Vatican, charging that the Catholic Church is responsible for transferring the priest and conspiring to cover up the allegations. The plaintiff has also charged that the priest in question was an employee of the Holy See, thus indicating that the responsibility for the alleged sex abuse belongs to the Vatican.
Jeffrey Lena, U.S. lawyer for the Vatican, clarified in remarks to CNA on June 28 that the “effect of the Supreme Court's decision is to cause the case to return to the district court in Oregon, where the additional remaining defenses will be heard.”
Lena stressed that the ruling “is not a comment” on the merits of the case.
The plaintiff, he explained, “currently has one jurisdictional theory left. That theory is that the priest who committed the abuse was an 'employee' of the Holy See.”
“We will, of course, point out to the district court that the priest in question is not an employee of the Holy See, and that, therefore, the district court does not have jurisdiction over the case.”
“In our view the indicia of employment simply are not present,” he added. “The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest, and any of the other factors indicating the presence of an employment relationship.”
Noting that Fr. Ronan was a priest of the Order Friar Servants of Mary, Lena stated that his “very existence was unknown to the Holy See until after all the events in question.”
“The Holy See has yet to factually challenge whether Ronan was an employee and this is what will be addressed back in the district court,” he noted. “The key jurisdictional issue in the case is whether the priest is an employee of the Holy See.”
“The plaintiffs have yet to come up with any evidence that Ronan worked for the Vatican. They have all the documents from the order and the diocese. None of these bear the fingerprints of the Holy See.”
Lena also criticized other media coverage of the ruling that used the terms “Catholic Church” and “Holy See” interchangeably. On Monday, the Agence France Presse (AFP) wrote that the lawsuit is a “landmark case that opens the way for the Catholic Church in the United States to be sued for a litany of child sex abuse cases.”
“It is the Holy See that is the defendant,” Lena underscored. “The 'Church' does not enjoy sovereign immunity and has never asked for it. It is only the Holy See.”
One “should not be treating those as having the same meaning at all,” he said.
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who is representing John Doe in the case, did not return phone calls before publication time.