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Vatican Not Priests' Employer, U.S. Judge Says

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Tourists gather in St. Peter's square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Tourists gather in St. Peter's square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Vatican won a major victory Monday in an Oregon federal courtroom, where a judge ruled that the Holy See is not the employer of molester priests.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman ends a six-year question in the decade-old case and could shield the Vatican from possible monetary damages.

The original lawsuit was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said the Rev. Andrew Ronan repeatedly molested him in the late 1960s.

The plaintiff tried to show that Ronan and all priests are employees of the Vatican, which is therefore liable for their actions.

Mosman made a previous decision strictly on legal theory and determined that, if all the factual assertions made by the plaintiff's lawyers in the case were true and applicable, then the Vatican would indeed employ Ronan. But on Monday, Mosman said he looked at the facts in the case and didn't find an employer-employee relationship.

"There are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See," Mosman said in his ruling from the bench.

Jeff Anderson, attorney for the plaintiff, said he will appeal the decision.

"While we're disappointed, of course, we're not discouraged," Anderson said.

Vatican attorney Jeff Lena said the case should put to rest the notion that the Holy See is liable for the actions of priests.

"This is a case in which, for the first time, a court in the U.S. has taken a careful, factual look at whether or not a priest in the U.S. can be viewed as an employee of the Holy See and the answer, unequivocally, was no," Lena said.

The case is the last major U.S. sex abuse lawsuit against the Holy See. Cases in Kentucky and Wisconsin have been dropped in recent years.

The plaintiffs argued that what they contend was Ronan's fealty to the Pope, the Vatican's ability to promote priests, the Vatican's laicization – or removal – process, and the ability to change priests' training all pointed to the Vatican employing priests.

"We believe that under further scrutiny," Anderson said in a news release, "the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy and concealment practiced by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States."

Lena said the Vatican had little to do with the laicization process unless a priest appealed, and points out that the appellate court will not further scrutinize the facts, but rather the application of the law in the case.

The impact of Mosman's ruling on other priest sex-abuse cases is not yet clear. The case has gone further than any other in attempting to get at the relationship between priests in the U.S. and the Vatican.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, said lawsuits against the Pope are usually dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds, with a U.S. court ruling that the Vatican can't be sued because there is no jurisdiction in the U.S. to do so.

"This was likely filed more to make a political statement," Laycock said.

Mosman took up several hypothetical analogies while questioning attorneys for both sides. He said that, for instance, the Oregon legal bar has many of the same powers over lawyers as the Vatican has over priests: It can disbar someone and issue sanctions, just as the Vatican can laicize priests, but doing so doesn't constitute a firing.

The plaintiffs were trying to show that, by exerting control, the Vatican was the priests' employer.

Mosman said that if he accepted the plaintiff's argument that the Vatican maintains absolute control over all priests, and is therefore their employer, then all Catholics everywhere could similarly be considered employees of the Holy See.

After the ruling, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, director David Clohessy said in a statement that the Vatican wants "to have their cake and eat it too" by varying their definition of the church, sometimes calling it a top-down hierarchical institution and other times asserting that only locals have control over their employee – an assertion Lena said flies in the face of an appellate court ruling in 2009 and Monday's decision by Mosman.

"It's a shame that, once again, top Catholic officials successfully exploit legal technicalities to keep clergy sex crimes and cover ups covered up," Clohessy said. "The truth is that the Vatican oversees the church worldwide, insisting on secrecy in child sex cases and stopping or delaying the defrocking of pedophile priests."

___

Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.

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