LOUISVILLE, Ky. – LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Vatican is asking a federal judge to reject an attempt to question Pope Benedict XVI under oath in a Kentucky sex abuse lawsuit on the grounds that there has been no evidence of a link to church officials in Rome.
The arguments filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Louisville also say that forcing Benedict, a head of state, to give a deposition would violate international law. The U.S. considers the Vatican to be a sovereign nation.
The lawsuit accuses the Vatican, referred to in papers as the Holy See, of orchestrating a cover-up of priests sexually abusing children throughout the U.S.
Louisville attorney William McMurry asked to depose Benedict and other Vatican officials in a motion in March and the filing on Thursday is a response. McMurry has also asked that the Vatican turn over administrative documents and respond to questions related to the abuse scandal in the U.S.
Attorneys for the Vatican argue that thousands of documents provided in a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville several years ago have turned up no connection to Rome. The Louisville archdiocese reached a settlement in 2003 with more than 240 abuse victims represented by McMurry for $25 million.
McMurry will have an opportunity to reply to the Vatican's latest arguments in a response to the court.
While U.S. dioceses have been sued over abuse by priests, the Kentucky lawsuit is the first U.S. case to make it to the stage of determining whether victims have a negligence claim against the Vatican. Filed in 2004 by three men abused by priests in the Louisville diocese, it argues in part that U.S. bishops should be considered employees or officials of the Holy See.
The Vatican's filing said McMurry had access to "thousands and thousand of pages of documents" from the Louisville archdiocese suit and has not found any trail that leads to the Holy See.
"There is no evidence whatsoever in the archdiocesan files showing that the archbishop was the Holy See's 'employee' or that the archbishop followed a mandatory Holy See policy relating to the handling of child sexual abuse by priests," the Vatican said in the filing.
McMurry said has said the court will use Kentucky law to determine the employment relationship between the Vatican and American bishops.
"I have yet to meet a Catholic, expert or otherwise, who does not believe that the Holy See has the absolute right to control the day-to-day activities of a bishop's work," McMurry said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press last week.
Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the "employment and 'secret policy' theories concocted by Mr. McMurry are little more than a lawyer's speculative confabulations, as the archdiocese documents demonstrate."
McMurry said Friday that personnel files kept by the Louisville archdiocese that were part of the court case did not reveal that a former priest, Louis Miller, had at one time told his superiors at the archdiocese that he had abused children. Miller is serving a prison sentence for sex abuse.
"How honest is this 'evidence from the diocese?'" McMurry said. "The sworn testimony of several witnesses, including (Louis) Miller, confirm that the Archbishops in Louisville kept their knowledge of priest abuse a secret."
The Vatican is also asking U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn to rule first on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The motion filed by Vatican lawyers in mid-May argued that U.S. bishops are not Vatican employees and that Rome therefore can't be held liable for their actions.
Foreign nations are typically immune from civil actions in U.S. courts, but there are exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act which courts have said could be applied in the Kentucky case.
Bringing a head of state like the pope to a deposition in the U.S. is nearly an impossible legal hurdle to overcome, said Jonathan Levy, a Washington attorney who has sued the Vatican on behalf of Holocaust victims.
"I doubt very much a U.S. court would want to make an order that it knows it's not going to be able to enforce," Levy said. "How can a federal judge force a head of state to attend a deposition?"