ROME – The U.S. Justice Department has told a Texas court that a lawsuit accusing Pope Benedict XVI (search) of conspiring to cover up the sexual molestation of three boys by a seminarian should be dismissed because the pontiff enjoys immunity as head of state of the Holy See.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Peter Keisler said in Monday's filing that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would be "incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests."
There was no immediate ruling from Judge Lee Rosenthal of the U.S. District Court for the southern district of Texas in Houston. However, U.S. courts have been bound by such "suggestion of immunity" motions submitted by the government, Keisler's filing says.
A 1994 lawsuit against Pope John Paul II (search), also filed in Texas, was dismissed after the U.S. government filed a similar motion.
Keisler's motion was not unexpected, as the Vatican Embassy in Washington had asked the U.S. government to issue the immunity suggestion and do everything it could to get the case dismissed.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search) was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit by three plaintiffs who allege that Juan Carlos Patino-Arango, a Colombian-born seminarian on assignment at St. Francis de Sales church in Houston, molested them during counseling sessions in the church in the mid-1990s.
Patino-Arango has been indicted in a criminal case by a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, and is a fugitive from justice.
The lawsuit alleges Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope, was involved in a conspiracy to hide Patino-Arango's crimes and help him escape prosecution.
The lawsuit cites a May 18, 2001, letter from Ratzinger written in Latin to bishops around the world, explaining that "grave" crimes such as the sexual abuse (search) of minors would be handled by his congregation and that the proceedings of special church tribunals handling the cases were subject to "pontifical secret."
Daniel Shea, attorney for one of the plaintiffs, has said such secret proceedings amounted to a conspiracy to cover up the crimes.
The Vatican (search) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have insisted the secret church procedures in the sex abuse case were not designed to cover up abuse nor to prevent victims from reporting crimes to law enforcement authorities. The document deals with church law — not keeping secrets from secular authorities, they say.
The pope's lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, said Tuesday it was "appropriate" the Justice Department had determined the pope was "the sitting head of state of the Holy See."
In a telephone interview, Lena said the motion would now be considered by the Texas court, "which should be bound by the executive's determination" and rule accordingly.
Many lawsuits stemming from the U.S. church sex abuse crisis have named the pope, the Vatican and other high-ranking church officials, but they failed because the officials could never be served with the papers. This case got further than most because Ratzinger was actually served with the documents.
Shea said Tuesday he would challenge the constitutionality of the U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Holy See on the grounds that it goes against the First Amendment's "establishment clause" that bars any laws respecting the establishment of religion.
Shea noted that in trying to have the case dismissed, Ratzinger's lawyers have already admitted in court papers that the Holy See is a church. A May 26 motion to dismiss the suit, citing the First Amendment, says the case should be thrown out because it would "invite court intrusion into the internal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church."
However, legal experts said such a challenge would be difficult to win, partly because previous challenges have failed and because the U.S. has maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1984.
"The courts have become a lot less interested in the establishment clause in the last few years," said Kent Greenawalt, a professor of First Amendment and legal philosophy at Columbia Law School.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See said they were familiar with the case but had no other immediate comment. The Vatican said it had no comment.
Along with the pope, the lawsuit names as defendants Patino-Arango, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza and the Rev. William Pickhard, Patino-Arango's vocational director.