COLUMBUS (TDB) -- A federal appeals court wants lawyers representing the Holy See to file legal briefs next month explaining why the tiny nation headed by Pope Benedict XVI is immune from U.S. lawsuits.
As an independent nation, the the Vatican contends it should not have to defend itself against litigation asserting Roman Catholic clergy molested children. The Holy See says it is beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The briefs are due April 19 in the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The case is unique because a federal judge in Louisville ruled two months ago that the Vatican could potentially be held accountable for abuse if there were "violations of the customary international law of human rights." Huge amounts of money are at stake. The Vatican has priceless art collectons. And who knows what else? There are rumors of vast wealth accumulated over the centuries.
Lawyers suing the Holy See in a class-action for the sex abuse victims say the church-state violated its international law obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter document of the United Nations, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They also say it breached duties to provide safe care, custody and control over children entrusted to Roman Catholic oficials, and it withheld information about known and suspected perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn of Lousiville, who said the Vatican is not immune, found that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) conferred jurisdiction.
"For most of our nation's history, it was our national policy to grant foreign states complete immunity from civil suits in United States courts. Beginning in 1952, this view began to change. Gradually, a view evolved that one could sue foreign states in United States courts under certain limited exceptions. the specific determinations were generally left to the State Department until 1976 when Congress enacted FSIA, which sought to codify the existing exceptions," Heyburn said.
He said he would allow claims to go forward for fail to report abuse, failure to warn, outrage and emotional distress and human rights violations under international law. The Pope's lawyers appealed even though Heyburn says he might be persuaded to change his mind if fresh evidence was placed before him.
"The court is open to reconsidering its decision that the United States-based bishops, archbishops, and other clergy of the Roman Catholic Church are employees of the Holy See for purposes of FSIA if further contrary evidence emerges during the litigation," he said.
Now, the appeals court will decide if the Pope is ultimately responsible for the scandal in the U.S. church.