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John McKiggan Q.C.
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Vatican Denies Responsibility for Sexually Abusive Priests


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.

Supreme Leader

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.

Vicarious Liability

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.

Vatican’s Guidelines

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.

Want More Information?

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.


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  1. Graham Seed says:
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    The Vatican is revealing its true colours in trying to avoid its responsibilities.

    With governments and companies we often witness an MP or CEO resigning and stepping down from their position under such circumstances. You won’t see similar actions by the Pope, who by definition has “Papal infallibility”, which means he is is preserved from even the possibility of error. What a joke.

  2. up arrow

    Joseph Ratzinger was born a man, a human, a person with a finite life time. He knows this, his associates know this, and all catholics and non-catholics know this. The ultimate acknowledgement of this fact is the Popemobile, built to protect and preserve the human life of the man called the pope. However, there is no popemobile, no Swiss Guard, no secrete organization on the globe that is going to protect this Pope from the swell of justice seekers that he has spent his human lifetime denying. The time for taking responsibility has passed. The cancer is terminal.

  3. Carolyn Disco says:
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    Excellent article about papal authority and responsibility.

    One other point: nations should not give diplomatic recognition to the Holy See, which is a religious institution and fictional state in any common sense understanding.

    Diplomatic immunity allows bishops to send “dangerous” documents to the local nuncio (ambassador) as a way to hide evidence from the law of that country.

    Such advice was given by a US bishop to his counterparts as a way of taking advantage of diplomatic immunity. Once at the embassy, prosecutors cannot get access to files stored there.

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler says:
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    The Catholic Church is the wealthiest, most powerful organization in the world and a direct offshoot of the Roman Empire. The pedophilia in which it is enmeshed is hardly surprising, nor is the lack of accountability on the Vatican’s part, because it puts the souls/lives of men far above that of “the flock”, and its “reputation” above everything else. The organization amounts to some kind of idolatry of all that is male, and of priests in particular.
    I have read further possible evidence of directions by the pope to the dioceses, if it is true, points convincingly to a coverup. The church is a source of inspiration to many, a source of solace and hope, and it is unconscionable that it seems to have taken advantage of this vulnerability and naivete.

  5. up arrow

    Many court documents and news events prove that Jehovah’s Witnesses require two witnesses when a child comes forward with allegations of molestation within the congregation. Such allegations have customarily been treated as sins instead of crimes and are only reported to authorities when it is required to do so by law, (which varies by state).
    It has also been shown that child molesters within the organization usually have not been identified to the congregation members or the public at large. These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.

    The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.
    — Danny Haszard abuse victim

  6. Mike Bryant says:
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    Great Post John, it is very true that every person should hear this message and we all need to make sure that zero tolerance is just that.

  7. up arrow

    Thanks to all who commented.

    The problem, I think, is that many institutions (religious and secular) still feel it is important to do whatever it takes to protect the institution from disrepute.

    What these institutions fail to realize is that not taking a strong stand against sexual abuse breeds criticism and suspicion.