As we might have expected, efforts by American lawyers to sue the Vatican and/or the Pope over sexual abuse in their country are not finding favour on high. In a strongly worded brief for the United States Supreme Court, the U.S government has taken the side of the Vatican in an Oregon lawsuit that names the Holy See as a defendant for its role in the sexual abuse crisis.

Under US law, foreign governments enjoy immunity from prosecution in America — with some exceptions. In effect, the brief asserts that the standards for an exception have not been met in the Oregon case.

The case of Doe v. Holy See was originally filed in federal district court in Oregon in 2002 and was appealed. In 2009 an appeals court ruling allowed the case to go forward to the Supreme Court. The government is now recommending that the Supreme Court set aside the 2009 ruling and send it back to the appeals court for further consideration.

But the government brief stops short of recommending that the Supreme Court should directly take up the case of Doe v. Holy See. Friday’s brief was filed by the Acting Solicitor General of the United States as well as by officials from the Attorney General’s office and the State Department.

Experts say this is the first time the United States government has officially expressed an opinion about efforts to sue the Vatican in American courts as opposed to the Pope personally.

In 2005, the U.S. State Department recommended dismissing Pope Benedict XVI from a Texas lawsuit over the sexual abuse crisis, on the basis of a separate personal guarantee of immunity enjoyed by heads of state. The judge in that case complied.

Essentially, the brief argues that the standards for overcoming sovereign immunity have not been met. It does not address the substantive question of whether Catholic priests are actually Vatican “employees” for purposes of American civil law, the National Catholic Reporter said. This is also the basis of a Kentucky suit against the Vatican.



Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet