A lawsuit against the Vatican that had been dismissed as a publicity stunt moved forward when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See. Monday's development represents a significant advance for what many believed to be a long-shot claim that the Vatican bears legal responsibility for molester priests.
The high court's decision not to stop the lawsuit means the clergy sex abuse case will go to trial in an Oregon district court.
"I have known for 25 years that all roads lead to Rome," said Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota attorney who represents the plaintiff. "This is the beginning for us of a new journey, a uniquely difficult odyssey."
Anderson, who has represented hundreds of abuse victims and has tried for years to sue the Vatican, said he hoped to persuade a judge that he should be allowed to depose Vatican officials.
Jeffrey Lena, the American attorney for the Holy See, argued the Vatican is not responsible for individual priests in dioceses, saying the existence of the priest in the case "was unknown to the Holy See until after all the events in question."
The original lawsuit, John V. Doe v. Holy See, was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said the Rev. Andrew Ronan repeatedly molested him in the late 1960s.
Anderson argues in the case that priests are Vatican employees for the purpose of American law. If the trial judge agrees, that would constitute an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, under which the Vatican has been immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
A lower court judge previously ruled there could be enough of a connection between the Holy See and Ronan for him to be considered a Vatican employee under Oregon law. That ruling was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lena had asked the federal courts to throw out the lawsuit.
"The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest, and any of the other factors indicating the presence of an employment relationship," Lena said.
According to the lawsuit, Ronan, who belonged to a religious order, began abusing boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland. He was transferred to Chicago, where he allegedly admitted abusing three boys at St. Philip's High School.
Ronan was later moved to a parish in Portland, Ore., where he was accused of abusing the person who filed the lawsuit now under appeal. He was removed from the priesthood in 1966, according to the Archdiocese of Portland, and died in 1992.
The Obama administration had sided with the Vatican on the issue of sovereign immunity.
The acting U.S. solicitor general, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the case does not meet the standard for an exception to immunity.
Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty specialist at University of Michigan Law School, said the brief will be influential as the case proceeds.
"The courts give substantial weight to the State Department's views on foreign sovereign immunity issues," Laycock said.
In 2005, the administration of President George W. Bush argued the pope should have immunity from a lawsuit accusing him of conspiracy to hide abuse because the pontiff is an acting head of a foreign state. Soon after, a federal judge dismissed the case.
However, Steve Rubino, a New Jersey attorney who has represented abuse victims since the 1980s, argued that the court could react differently now that the scope of clergy sex abuse is better known. The case against the Vatican is proceeding as European churches, Vatican officials and Pope Benedict XVI are engulfed by the latest crises over clergy sex abuse.
Rubino said that when he first took up abuse cases, diocesan attorneys often won by arguing that First Amendment religious freedom protections meant that civil courts could not interfere in church business. That approach rarely works any more.
"The world has been affected by a slow realization of the depth of the scandal," Rubino said. "Judges react the same way. People are tired of this."
A separate lawsuit filed in Louisville, Ky., and still in the courts, contends the Vatican is responsible for U.S. bishops who failed to stop priests from molesting children.
The case is Holy See v. John Doe, 09-1.