WASHINGTON — In a brief before the US Supreme Court, the Obama administration has backed the Vatican's claim of immunity from a lawsuit brought against an alleged pedophile priest in the United States.
In a filing made Friday, the solicitor general's office argued that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals erred in allowing the lawsuit brought by a man who claims he was sexually abused in the 1960s by a priest in Oregon.
The nine Supreme Court justices are considering the Vatican's appeal of the case and asked for President Barack Obama's administration to weigh in, as is common when cases affect diplomatic relations.
The solicitor general's office, which defends the federal government's position before the Supreme Court, said the Ninth Circuit improperly found the case to be an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 federal law that sets limits on when other countries can face lawsuits in US courts.
The appellate court's decision "does not merit plenary review," the brief said, urging the Supreme Court to "vacate the judgment" of the court of appeals and remand to that court for further consideration.
But if the Supreme Court decides to reverse the lower court's ruling, it will be siding with the Vatican because it would annul the decision.
If, however, the top court rejects the case, the appellate court's ruling becomes final and the plaintiffs can move to the next step: determining whether the Vatican may be considered as the pedophile priest's employer.
"We continue to believe the best path is for the court to simply deny the (Vatican's) petition," said Marci Hamilton, an attorney for the plaintiff, who was unnamed in the case in order to protect his identity.
Citing the Holy See as a defendant, the plaintiff argued the Vatican should be held responsible for transferring the priest to Oregon and letting him serve there despite previous accusations he had abused children in Chicago and in Ireland.
The case, which was filed in 2002, does not directly address questions raised in a separate lawsuit in Kentucky alleging that US bishops are employees of the Holy See.
But the Vatican plans to argue in the Kentucky case that Catholic dioceses are run as separate entities from the Holy See, and that the only authority that the pontiff has over bishops around the world is a religious one, according to Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's US attorney.
Lena declined to comment on the Oregon case because it is currently before the high court.
But in an earlier interview, he acknowledged it was "partially true" that the importance of this case lies in whether the Holy See or Pope Benedict XVI were involved in the abuse.
The Vatican lawyer also pointed to the case's implications in international law.
"It is critical to maintain the equilibrium amongst international powers even as to the question of jurisdiction," he said.
"If United States tribunals freely enlarge their powers of jurisdiction over other states, it upsets the delicate balance of power on the international plane. This is an issue that affects not just the Holy See, but all the world's sovereigns."
Another case, in Wisconsin, is also seeking to prove the Vatican's liability for abuse committed by priests in the United States.
In recent months, large-scale pedophilia scandals have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in a number of countries, including Austria, Ireland, the pontiff's native Germany and the United States.
Senior clerics have been accused of protecting the priests involved by moving them to other parishes -- where they sometimes offended again -- instead of handing them over to civil authorities for prosecution.
The pope, who has himself faced allegations implicating him in the scandal, has repeatedly said priests and religious workers guilty of child abuse should answer for their crimes in courts of law.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »