Tort Law

Sex Abuse Victims Sue Vatican, Claim Officials Knew Year Earlier of Abuse

A new suit filed Thursday against Pope Benedict XVI claims that the Vatican knew at least a year earlier than previously disclosed about the case of a priest who molested deaf boys for some 20 years at a boarding school in Wisconsin.

One of the estimated 200 victims wrote a letter in 1995 to the Vatican pleading with Pope John Paul II to “excommunicate” Rev. Lawrence Murphy, the New York Times reports. The Vatican has previously said its first notice of the abuse came in 1996 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—received a letter from Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee.

The Times recounts that Father Murphy, who died in 1998, admitted to an Archdiocese-hired psychologist that he molested 34 children when he worked at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., from 1952 to 1974. Church officials later concluded that there might have been as many as 200 victims.

St. Paul, Minn., lawyer Jeffrey Anderson filed suit Thursday on behalf of the letter writing victim, identified as John Doe 16 of Illinois, and several other victims. The suit seeks the release of confidential Vatican files detailing clergy abuse allegations, plus damages, the Associated Press reports. See video of Anderson’s news conference here.

The case is the latest filed by Anderson, who has brought hundreds of sex abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church.

The Times and other media note that this suit is unusual because is specifically names Pope Benedict; the Vatican’s current secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; a former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano; and the Holy See as defendants.

It’s a move that Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer for the Holy See, told the Times is without merit. “When you’re claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress because you got no response to a letter to a private individual who is like a prime minister, that is going off the deep end,” Lena is quoted saying.

The National Law Journal reports that Anderson knows he faces an “enormous legal challenge” considering the state of the Vatican City can claim sovereign immunity.

His plan, however, is to use a tort exception to argue that the Catholic Church engaged in systematic activity that injured a large number of people in the United States and therefore is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. He also plans to argue a commercial activity exception, pleading that the church is a massive business organization not immune from litigation, the NLJ reports.

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