Vatican Denies Responsibility for Sexually Abusive Priests
John McKigganAugust 23, 2011 5:08 PM
The Washington Post has reported on litigation in Oregon that seeks to prove that the Vatican should be held liable for alleged sexual abuse by Father Andrew Ronan. The lawsuit hopes to prove that the Vatican was “effectively” Ronan’s employer when the priest allegedly sexually abused the plaintiff, John Doe.
According to the report:
An employment relationship could trigger an exception to a federal law that usually bars lawsuits against foreign sovereign entities such as the Vatican.
The Oregon litigation is just one of thousands of sexual abuse allegations against priests around the world. Is it reasonable to assume the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wasn't aware of the avalanche of allegations that have been made against priests world-wide? If so, what, if any responsibility does the leadership of the Catholic Church have to sexual abuse victims?
Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith for more than 20 years. The role of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith is to "safeguard the doctrine of the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world" and deals with, among other things, priests accused of pedophilia.
It is unlikely that there is anyone alive today who knows more about child abuse in the Catholic Church than the current Pope.
Vatican Opposed Reporting of Sexual Abuse
Recent sexual abuse litigation in the United States has uncovered a letter purportedly from the Vatican’s cardinal Silvio Angelo Pio to Bishop Moreno of Tucson Arizona which says in part:
“To the second question ("Should we allow or disallow civil lawyers from obtaining Father's personnel records from our Chancery files") we reply that under no condition whatever ought the afore-mentioned files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever.”
The letter goes on to say:
“Your Excellency should therefore make known immediately and with clarity that no priest's files will be sent to any lawyer or judge whatever.”
In a similar vein, a letter has surfaced from the Pope's personal representative in Ireland. The letter from Father Luciano Storero, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, was in response to a policy created by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee.
Irish Bishops recommended all charges of sexual abuse against priests be reported to civil authorities. This recommendation was a concern to the Vatican:
“In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.”
Vatican Denies Responsibility Bishops Actions
Last year the Vatican asked a court in Kentucky to strike a lawsuit that claimed Catholic Bishops are employees or officials of the Church. Counsel for the Vatican denied the Pope has control over Bishops, saying: "The pope is not a five-star general ordering his troops around,"
Different in Canada?
The liability of the Vatican for sexually abusive priests has yet to be determined by any court around the world. But based on existing case law, there is an argument to be made that, at least in Canada, the Pope would be found vicariously liable for the actions of Catholic Bishops.
Canon Law establishes the Pope as the supreme leader of the world-wide Catholic Church. His job is to prescribe what rules are to be followed by the faithful, and to take whatever measures he deems necessary for the preservation and the propagation of the Catholic faith.
According to The Code of Canon Law, Bishops are appointed by the Pope. The Pope is the sole authority over Bishops and the Pope is the only person that has the power assign Bishops to a Diocese, to remove Bishops from a Diocese, and to discipline Bishops for misconduct. A Bishop cannot even resign from a Diocese without permission from the Pope.
In the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Doe v. Bennett, the court held the Catholic Diocese of St. George's vicariously liable for sexual abuse by one of it's priests.
The Court stated:
“The relationship between the bishop and the priest in the Diocese is not only spiritual but temporal. First, the Bishop provided Bennett with the opportunity to abuse his power. Second, Bennett’s wrongful acts were strongly related to the psychological intimacy inherent in his role as priest. Third, the Bishop conferred an enormous degree of power on Bennett relative to his victims”
One would think that the same reasoning would apply to hold the Pope responsible for the acts of Bishops because the Pope grants Bishops "an enormous degree of power" over Catholics throughout the world.
The Vatican recently released “Guidelines” to Bishops dealing with claims of priest sexual abuse. Cardinal William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Guidelines were drafted to "facilitate the correct application" of the Pope's instructions.
Obeying the Law not Mandatory
The Vatican stops short of ordering Bishops to obey laws requiring the reporting of sexual abuse of children. The Guidelines state:
"Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed". [Emphasis added]
The Guidelines recognize that child abuse is a crime. But the Vatican isn't prepared to require Bishops to report crimes of sexual abuse.
Unfortunately the Vatican has missed yet another opportunity to take decisive action to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. By not clearly stating that Bishops must comply with civil the laws, the Vatican reveals it’s Guidelines to be merely a public relations exercise, rather than a legitimate attempt to address sexual abuse by priests.
A Lesson From Spiderman
Perhaps Pope Benedict doesn't read Spiderman comics. Maybe he should. In the first Spiderman story Peter Parker learns: " With great power there must also come - Great responsibility! "
The Vatican and the Pope weild enormous power over every Bishop, priest and catholic parishioner in the world. Perhaps it is time the Pope accepts the responsibility that comes with that power.
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For almost twenty years I have dedicated my practice to representing survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I wrote Breaking the Silence: The Survivor's Guide to Sexual Abuse Claims so that abuse survivors and their families can get good solid information about their legal options, privately and confidentially.
If you would like a copy of Breaking the Silence, you can buy a copy of the book on Amazon.com or if you live in Atlantic Canada you can receive a free copy of the book by contacting me through this blog, or my website at www.apmlawyers.com or by calling toll free in Atlantic Canada 1-877-423-2050.