MILWAUKEE — A lawsuit from the U.S. aims to place blame for priest sexual abuse at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church by claiming the Vatican controls leadership, fundraising and doctrine down to the lowest levels.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. federal court claims top leaders at the Vatican knew about allegations of sexual abuse at St. John's School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee and called off internal punishment of the accused priest, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an Illinois man by St. Paul, Minn.-based attorney Jeff Anderson, who also has a pending lawsuit against the Vatican in Oregon for a man who claims he was abused at his Catholic school in the 1960s.
Among the pieces of evidence in the Wisconsin suit is a 1995 letter from one of Murphy's alleged victims detailing the problems at St. John's. It was addressed to the No. 2 person in the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was then secretary of state.
It was written a year before it was first believed the case was brought to the attention of the Vatican.
The lawsuit intends to prove the Vatican is a global business empire, practicing in "commercial activity" in Wisconsin and across the U.S. and holding "unqualified power" over each diocese, parish and follower.
The Vatican's U.S.-based attorney, Jeffrey Lena, said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit was a publicity stunt with no merit and it rehashes theories already rejected by U.S. courts.
The Vatican previously has said that diocese officials and civil authorities knew about the allegations some 20 years before the Vatican was ever notified. Because of that, Lena said, it cannot be held liable for Murphy's abuse.
Some legal experts questioned the Wisconsin lawsuit's prospects.
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean at the Duquesne University School of Law, disputes the argument that the Roman Catholic Church is an international commercial business.
"He's alleging an employment relationship between individual priests and the Holy See," Cafardi said. "I'm sorry, but diocesan priests in the United States are not employees of the Holy See. ... If a court were to accept that, they would be creating a new Catholic Church, not the one that exists now."
Professor Joseph Dellapenna at the Villanova University School of Law doubts courts will treat the Wisconsin diocese as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Vatican. He noted a number of dioceses around the country have filed for bankruptcy because of abuse cases, and the courts have treated them as separate, independent entities.
The biggest issue could be overcoming the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which sets the rules for U.S. legal action against sovereign nations, including the Vatican.
Dellapenna said the suit's claims of misrepresentation and fraud are barred by the act. Another U.S. appeals court has ruled the act also bars its claims of emotional distress, he said, though Wisconsin's 7th Circuit could decide differently.
But Washington, D.C., attorney Jonathan Levy, a specialist in international law who has tried suing the Vatican Bank over Holocaust claims, said Anderson could succeed in taking advantage of exceptions to sovereign immunity.
"I'd say he's got some new and exciting theories in there why the Vatican should be held responsible for its bad acts," Levy said.
Anderson said the suit is unique because it's seeking injunctive relief, not just money, by compelling the Vatican to open its files on abuse cases.
"They have been hiding behind legal shields, and we have been successful so far in the courts in cracking those shields," he said. "We intend to use this case and others like it to wedge open those cracks."
He said the plaintiff had pledged to donate any monetary award to a fund to be shared by Murphy's victims.
The lawsuit is the latest move in the case of Murphy, who died in 1998. He was accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the deaf school from 1950 to 1974. He was put on a leave of absence when the allegations were revealed in the early 1970s. The lawsuit claims Murphy was still allowed to serve in ministry and work with children in another Wisconsin diocese into the early 1990s.
Murphy's case drew renewed attention after the recent release of documents called into question the actions of a Vatican office led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Before the disclosure of the 1995 letter to Sodano, it was believed the Vatican first learned of allegations against Murphy in a July 1996 letter from Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland. That letter was sent to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office Ratzinger led from 1981 to his election as pope in 2005.
That office told the archbishop to move forward with a canonical trial against Murphy in March 1997. But then the office urged a different course after receiving a letter from Murphy.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, has said they suggested restricting Murphy from ministry rather than holding a full-blown canonical trial, citing Murphy's age, failing health, and a lack of further allegations.
The Wisconsin bishops ordered the proceedings halted, but in the end, Murphy died while still a defendant in a canonical trial, which could have led to Murphy being laicized, or stripped of the priesthood.
Sodano has long been accused in news reports in U.S. Catholic publications and other outlets of stalling a Vatican probe of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the discredited founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The order has admitted that the late Maciel fathered at least one child and molested young seminarians.
Anderson provided a copy of a receipt showing the registered letter to Sodano had reached the Vatican. The man wrote Sodano again and got no response, according to Anderson.
Lena said that at the time, it was a local matter regarding a local priest and the victim had already communicated with the local bishop. Under those circumstances, Lena said it is "entirely appropriate" under canon law for the local diocese – not the Holy See – to respond.
Associated Press Writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Patrick Condon in St. Paul, Minn., and Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report. Eric Gorski reported from Denver.