William McMurrayThe Vatican this week has filed a motion to dismiss a class action suit in Kentucky that is attempting to put the blame for clerical sex abuse on the Pope and the Holy See. The suit claims that bishops are employees or officials of the Holy See, which “orchestrated a decades-long cover up of priests sexually abusing children throughout the US,” in the words of an AP report.

But the Vatican says bishops are neither employees nor officials of Rome, the basis of their relationship being a religious one. As a canon lawyer explains, “the pope and the bishops constitute a college, a group of people who received from Jesus Christ the mission to announce the Gospel and administer sacraments.” A bishop is therefore a representative of Christ in his diocese, not the Pope.

Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s attorney in the case, argues in the motion that bishops in no way satisfy the employment test which courts use to determine whether employers are liable for the actions of their employees.

In addition, he told The Associated Press in a preview of the motion, he said he would suggest to the court that it should avoid using the religious nature of the relationship between bishops and the pope as a basis for civil liability because it entangles the court in an analysis of religious doctrine that U.S. courts generally avoid.

Lawyer William McMurray originally filed the suit against the Church in 2004 on behalf of three men who said they were abused by priests as children. McMurray is now seeking class action status, saying there are thousands of victims nationally. McMurray, who represented 243 sex abuse victims who settled with the Archdiocese of Louisville in 2003 for $25.3 million, is seeking unspecified damages from the Vatican.

Usually foreign countries are immune from civil actions in U.S. courts, but there are exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act which courts have said were applicable in this case.

The statute says that plaintiffs can establish subject matter jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign if a crime was committed in the United States by any official or employee of the foreign state and that the crimes were committed within the scope of employment.

McMurray tried to make his case to an appeals court in 2008 and maintains that the issue of whether bishops are “officials” remains unresolved.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet