A victim of clerical sexual abuse by an Irish priest 40 years ago may be the first person to hold the Vatican responsible.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, issued a decision on Tuesday, March 3, that opens the door to survivors of clerical sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church to sue the Vatican for its role in the cover-up of priests and molestations by them.
The Court of Appeals concurred with a 2006 ruling from Portland based U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman that “the Holy See is not immune from suit” in a case involving a priest with “dangerous proclivities.”
The court ruled that the victim could pursue a civil suit against the Vatican because the priest allegedly abused him while serving in a religious capacity.
Ronan, who died in 1992, was transferred to the U.S. in the early sixties after he admitted to sexually abusing young boys in the archdiocese of Co. Armagh. Ronan was transferred to Chicago, where he subsequently admitted to abusing three boys at St. Philip’s High School.
He was later moved to Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland where he was accused of abusing the victim who filed the lawsuit now under appeal.
The case, which was originally brought before a judge seven years ago, only made the courtroom last year. The Catholic hierarchy claimed sovereign immunity when the case went to court under a law that grants protection to foreign states before U.S. courts, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).
The suit claimed the movement of Ronan from one place to another was part of a church policy and practice aimed at protecting the abusers and the church from liability for their actions. The Holy See, it said, “by and through its agents, granted Ronan faculties to perform as a Roman Catholic priest” and, at the time of the alleged abuse, “also certified and held Ronan out to the community of the faithful as a fit and competent agent of defendant Holy See and a minister of Christ.”
Lawyers have, for decades, tried to hold the Vatican responsible for clerical abuse and their cover-ups.
Jeff Anderson, the victim’s lawyer, said that his client’s claim might allow for an exception to FSIA protection, for the Vatican but he added that he expects the Vatican to ask for a review of the ruling or even take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“They have been choosing for years . . . to protect the clerics and not the kids,” said Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer in a statement.
The ruling was “a major breakthrough in the sense that the problem emanates from the top,” Anderson said.
“This ruling sends a clear signal that anyone who enables American kids to be molested will face legal consequences,” Anderson said. “It also signals that the Vatican is not above the law.”
The Chicago Archdiocese, named in the suit because Ronan was stationed at a Servite high school there from 1960-’65, said in 2002 that a review of its records “has not disclosed any incident of misconduct by Father Ronan.”
Allegations of sexual abuse of children have been made against a large number of Roman Catholic priests around the globe. Several major lawsuits were filed in 2001 alleging that priests had sexually abused minors. Some priests resigned, others were defrocked or jailed, and financial settlements totaling millions of dollars were made to many victims.