Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oregon, Wisconsin suits against Vatican will continue

One of the most promising lawsuits from sexual abuse victims seeking to link the Vatican to the American priest abuse scandal has imploded in Kentucky, but a prominent plaintiffs' attorney says it shouldn't affect two other lawsuits aimed directly at Rome.

The long-running Kentucky case naming the Holy See as a defendant essentially ended this week when the three plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss their own case.

The collapse of the Kentucky case shouldn't be seen as a setback for two other suits attempting to link the Vatican to the American abuse scandal, said Jeff Anderson, a high-profile Minnesota attorney who filed the cases. Its early end does highlight the difficulty of pursuing a claim in this country against the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

"It's not for the faint of heart, the weak of pocketbook or anybody who's not totally resolved to it," said Anderson, who filed a suit on behalf of a man has claimed he was abused by a Catholic priest in Oregon in the late 1960s.

The three men who were abused in their youth at Catholic schools in Kentucky abandoned the case after their attorney said they face "insurmountable hurdles" that included the Vatican's sovereign status in the U.S.

A Vatican spokesman this week applauded the ending of the Kentucky case, saying it "proved to be originating from an unfounded accusation."

Plenty of obstacles remain for Anderson's suit in Oregon and another he filed in Wisconsin in March against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on behalf of five men alleging fraud, a legal expert said.

The cases in Oregon and Kentucky were each tasked with proving that American clergy are employees of the Holy See, another name for the Vatican. The suits have been limited by judges under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which sets limits on legal actions in the U.S. against other nations.

Proving that American priests are employees of Rome is "going to be really difficult to prove," said Nick Cafardi, a Catholic canon lawyer and former dean of Duquesne University law school in Pittsburgh.

"Show me a paycheck from the pope to the bishop or one of his priests. Show me that the pope has them on his insurance policies as an employee," Cafardi said. "You can't show any of the things that we normally think of that make somebody an employee of somebody."

Aside from legal obstacles, attorneys who have taken on the Vatican say taking on such a huge and well-financed organization strains their law practices.

William McMurry, who filed the Kentucky suit, said he spent "8,000 hours of time and a couple of hundred thousand dollars" pursuing the case, which was filed in 2004.

"Bill (McMurry) spent an awful lot of money finding out that we couldn't beat them," said Michael J. Turner, one of the three men who brought the Kentucky case.

Anderson, who says he has represented "thousands" of plaintiffs in Catholic abuse cases, said he has spent "hundreds and hundreds of thousands" on the Oregon case, Doe v. Holy See, which was filed in 2002. A Vatican motion to dismiss the claim was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, allowing it to move forward.

"It's an enormous undertaking, — the amount of attorney time and the amount of expense involved in taking on the most powerful institution in western civilization is to many, daunting," Anderson said.

Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the defense is planning to file a second motion to dismiss the Oregon case.

James O'Bryan, another Kentucky plaintiff, said McMurry felt that the length of time that had passed since O'Bryan was abused at a Louisville church in 1928 made it impossible to find witnesses and collect evidence.

"I told him that what I was after had been accomplished," that is, bringing more attention to the American clergy abuse scandal, O'Bryan said.

McMurry said he spent months searching for new plaintiffs for the suit, which he had hoped to turn into a class-action. He said he believes there are hundreds of abuse victims who have simply chosen not to come forward.

"My assumption is that those folks who have determined they won't tell their families and reveal their secrets, they're locked tight for life," he said.

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