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.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Catholic states in the United States:
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  • Massachusetts

    44,905 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Rhode Island

    44330 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Jersey

    36,799 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Connecticut

    35056 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New York

    32443 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Illinois

    28439 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Mexico

    28407 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Pennsylvania

    27578 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • California

    27469 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Louisiana

    26490 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Wisconsin

    25,066 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • North Dakota

    24,881 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Hampshire

    23,626 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Minnesota

    21,689 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Vermont

    20,503 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Nebraska

    20,414 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Delaware

    20,328 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Texas

    18,586 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Hawaii

    18,350 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • South Dakota

    18,286 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Michigan

    17,375 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Ohio

    17,272 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Nevada

    16,703 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Iowa

    16514 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Colorado

    16138 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Kansas

    14952 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Arizona

    14549 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Maryland

    14503 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Maine

    14311 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Florida

    13371 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Montana

    12898 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • District of Columbia

    12622 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Missouri

    12094 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Washington

    11664 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Indiana

    11532 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Wyoming

    10862 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Oregon

    10408 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Virginia

    8422 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Kentucky

    8291 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Idaho

    7872 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Alaska

    7162 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Georgia

    6156 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Utah

    5793 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • West Virginia

    5173 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Oklahoma

    4756 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Arkansas

    4206 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Alabama

    4198 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • North Carolina

    4121 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • South Carolina

    3929 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Mississippi

    3791 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Tennessee

    3504 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.