LOUISVILLE — The federal government has takenthe Vatican's side — at least in part — in a Louisville-basedpriest-abuse lawsuit seeking class-action damages from the RomanCatholic headquarters.
Lawyers for the Justice and State departmentsargue in a friend-of-the-court brief that the Vatican can be sued onlyas a foreign state — a status that grants it broad protections fromlawsuits — and not asa private religious organization.
The federal government brief defends theconstitutionality of the law that sets limits on when foreigngovernments can be sued, and maintains it's the right of the presidentalone, and not the court system, to decide which countries to recognize.
The federal lawyers did not dispute a U.S.District Court judge's ruling that allowed the plaintiffs to sue theVatican within the limits of the law governing lawsuits against foreignstates.
The government lawyers also aren't taking sideson the substance of the lawsuit: the allegation that the Vaticancovered up sexual abuse by priests in the USA. The Vatican argues itshouldn't be sued.
"The U.S. sounds like it's mostly concernedabout the delicate nature of the international relations part of it,and justifiably so," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at theUniversity of Richmond in Virginia, "but I can understand how theplaintiffs' lawyer would be looking to hold the Vatican liable in thiscase, if it has some responsibility."
At issue is a federal lawsuit filed in 2004 byJames O'Bryan, Michael Turner and Donald Poppe. They say priests in theLouisville area sexually abused them between the 1920s and 1970s.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all those abused by priests in the USA.
Federal District Judge John Heyburn ruled inJanuary that the plaintiffs could sue the Vatican only within the lawgoverning suits against sovereign states.
He allowed some of the lawsuit to proceedbecause the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act includes an exceptionallowing lawsuits over any harmful acts by "officials" or "employees"of the foreign state within the USA.
The plaintiffs' attorney, William McMurry,argues that the sovereign immunities act violates the First Amendmentbecause it gives "a blatant 'special favor' that benefits only onereligion: the Catholic Church." He claims American bishops were churchofficials acting on Vatican orders to cover up abuse.
Under the law protecting foreign states fromlawsuits, however, Heyburn refused to allow the plaintiffs to seekdamages for anything done by church officials in the Vatican orelsewhere outside of U.S. soil.
Both sides are now appealing Heyburn's decision.Likewise, the Vatican contends that none of the exceptions allowinglawsuits against a foreign state fits this case. It argues that bishopsare neither employees nor officials of the Vatican.
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