A judge for the US District Court for the District of Oregon [official website] ruled in favor of the Vatican on Monday by holding that priests are not employees of the Holy See [official website], the ecclesiastical, governmental and administrative capital of the Roman Catholic Church. The 10-year-old case was brought by a Seattle-area man who has accused the Rev. Andrew Ronan of repeatedly molesting him [AP report] in the late 1960s. The man filed a lawsuit in 2002 claiming [complaint, PDF] that the Holy See is liable for transferring Ronan from Ireland to Chicago to Portland, even though the church knew Ronan had a history of sexual abuse. The lawsuit sought to show that Ronan and all priests are employees of the Vatican, in that the Holy See is the composite of the authority, jurisdiction and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his delegated advisers to direct the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. Judge Michael Mosman ruled that the facts of the case do not establish an employer-employee relationship between Ronan and the Holy See, despite his 2006 ruling allowing the lawsuit [JURIST report] to proceed on a strictly legal theory that Ronan was a Vatican employee under Oregon law. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act [Cornell LII materials] typically grants the Vatican and other foreign states immunity in US courts, but the 1976 act does not shield such states when engaged in commercial or certain harmful activities in the US.
Clergy abuse has become a contentious legal issue in recent years, as the Vatican has come under intense scrutiny related to allegations of sexual abuse of children by local church officials. In February Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the church-appointed prosecutor in the ongoing clergy sex abuse [JURIST news archive] scandals, issued a warning at a symposium of bishops that they must follow rules in place for protecting victims of sexual abuse in the church or they risk being sanctioned. In November a UK court ruled [JURIST report] that Catholic priests qualify as employees, meaning that the Catholic church could be held liable for sexual abuse by clergy members. In September Amnesty International [advocacy website] claimed [JURIST report] that clergy members' abuse of Irish children amounted to torture. The report, titled In Plain Sight [text, PDF] called special attention to "people in positions of power" who "ignore their responsibility to act." Also in September, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) [advocacy website] filed a complaint [JURIST report] with the International Criminal Court (ICC) [official website] against Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, for widespread sexual abuse and subsequent concealment of thousands of incidents. Since 2007, the Church has settled over 500 cases [JURIST news archive] of clergy abuse in the U.S. alone, totaling more than $900 million.