Wednesday, April 07, 2010

piercing sovereign immunity

NPR | At the heart of two lawsuits that are working their way through the federal courts lies one question: Does the Vatican control its Catholic bishops?

The answer could determine whether the Vatican can be sued in U.S. courts and be forced to open up its secret archives.

A Decentralized Church?
The Vatican's relationship with its bishops surfaced again this week in the case of the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, an Indian priest who served in northern Minnesota in 2004 and 2005. After the priest returned to India, two teenage girls from Minnesota accused him of molesting them. Now the local prosecutor wants him back in the U.S. to face charges.

According to documents and interviews, the Vatican wrote Jeyapaul's bishop in India and asked that "Father Jeyapaul's priestly life be monitored so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create a scandal."

Mike Finnegan, the attorney for one of the young women, says Jeyapaul is now overseeing 40 schools in the diocese. He says the Vatican should have removed him from ministry.

"Pope Benedict has absolute power and control over that bishop in India," Finnegan says. "And if Pope Benedict wanted something done and told this bishop to do it, the bishop would absolutely have to do it."

But Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena says the church cooperated with U.S. authorities, supplying them with Jeyapaul's address so that they could try to extradite him. He adds that people do not realize how administratively decentralized the Catholic Church is.

"The pope is not a five-star general ordering troops around," Lena says. "He is not Louis XIV telling his minions what to do. The 'military command center' or 'absolute authority' models of the church in which Rome dictates orders by royal fiat is just wrong."

Lena says it is the bishop who controls his diocese and is responsible to operate it within the framework of canon law.

That dispute — is a bishop an employee of the Vatican or not? — is the central issue raised by two lawsuits in U.S. federal court. One case involves the Rev. Andrew Ronan, a Servites order priest who was moved from Ireland to Chicago to Portland, Ore., and who admitted abusing minors in each place. Ronan has died, but an alleged victim sued not only the order but also the Vatican.

"The Ronan case, because it involves the international movement of the priest and a documentary trail that goes from the priest through the superiors to Rome, looked like our best shot to get to the Vatican," says Jeffrey Anderson, who represents the plaintiff.

Piercing Sovereign Immunity
That will be no easy task, as the Vatican is considered a sovereign state, and U.S. courts are reluctant to claim jurisdiction over foreign countries. To pierce the sovereign immunity, Anderson must show that the priest abused the victim in his capacity as an employee of the Vatican. Under Oregon's law — which is far more liberal than that of other states — the Vatican might be held liable for the priest's actions.


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