Vatican's US Lawyer Unruffled by High Court Ruling

Clarifies What Supreme Court’s Decision Meant

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ROME, JULY 2, 2010 ( A U.S. Supreme Court refusal to throw out a case against the Holy See might bring similar lawsuits, the Vatican’s lawyer admits, but he thinks they are as unlikely to have success as the original suit.

Jeffrey Lena, the California-based attorney representing the Holy See in the Oregon case of Holy See v. John V. Doe, gave this opinion to Vatican Radio on Thursday.

The lawyer discredited rumors sparked by the press, such as that the Vatican risks bankruptcy, or that the Pope could be deposed.

“As to the risk that the Vatican may go into bankruptcy, that is completely unfounded,” Lena said. “In the first instance this case is still discussing jurisdiction. We haven’t gotten anywhere near the question of whether there is liability in the case, so nobody should be concerned about that. In addition even if there were a question of liability, there are very strict rules about collection and it’s not even an issue in this case. […]

“I did read in several of the Italian papers discussion of the depositions of the Pope and Cardinal [Tarcisio] Bertone and Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano [the current and former secretaries of state]. That is all completely unfounded. I don’t have a doubt that there will be an attempt. I think that the attorney on the other side is interested in trying. The law will protect them however.”

Lena clarified that the Supreme Court’s Monday decision was not a denial of immunity.

“What the Supreme Court did was decide that it wasn’t going to address a question which we had wished to bring before it,” he explained. “That was a question that on the substantive law I think we were right. The United States agreed with us, but the Supreme Court simply determined that at this time, it was not interested in hearing the case. The fact that it wasn’t interested in hearing the case, as I say, did not deny immunity and was no comment on the merits of our position.”

Establishing employment

The crux of the Oregon case is the plaintiff’s attempt to establish that the abusive priest was an employee of the Holy See, and thus hold the Holy See responsible.

Lena explained that “the factors that generally determine whether a person is an employee include day-to-day control of the person, payment to the person for services rendered, insurance for the person, the understanding of the parties as to whether or not the person is employed, and there are a variety of other factors. None of these factors are met really in this case. This is a priest who was entirely unknown to the Holy See until after the events in question.

“The plaintiff’s attorney has suggested in the papers that because this priest had gone to Ireland and then returned to Ireland, somehow that was an ‘international transfer’ and therefore the Holy See must be involved, and that’s just really based upon a misunderstanding of how the Catholic Church works, of how religious orders operate and various other misunderstandings.”

Lena contended that the plaintiff’s attorney has evidence discrediting his own case.

It is evidence, he said, that he “hasn’t mentioned to the press,” but that “all points in the other direction. It suggests that this priest was a priest of a religious order active in the United States and Ireland, which had full control over this priest and was knowledgeable about this priest, but that neither the diocese involved nor the Holy See had any knowledge or control over him.”

Still a victim

Lena also clarified that the Vatican’s defense in the case in no way denies that the victim was a victim.

“He surely suffered as no child ever deserves to suffer, and there is no question in this case that this young man was victimized by a priest,” the lawyer said. “However, responsibility for damages for that suffering, which justly should be paid, fall upon the religious order which supervised him, controlled his activities, and transferred him. Not on the Holy See.”

More to come?

Finally, the U.S. lawyer acknowledged that similar cases might be on the horizon, but that any such lawsuit would face the same obstacles this one is facing.

“The denial of the petition for certiorari by the Supreme Court, which again I say was not a denial in any way of immunity, related to a very narrow issue, to the scope of employment under the federal law,” he said. “This is an issue that has no bearing on any other case. Presently there is a case in Wisconsin known as the Murphy case, which Mr. Anderson [John Doe’s lawyer] wishes to bring against the Holy See; that case is thus far completely inactive.

“Then there is a case in Kentucky — that case addresses a very different issue which is whether or not the bishop in the Archdiocese of Louisville is an employee of the Holy See — a theory that is equally unfounded. So those are the two cases thus far and there really are none other.

“As I say, it may be that out of misperception one or two cases are now filed, but I don’t anticipate that those will have any more success than these cases have.”

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