LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Three men who claim childhood sexual abuse by priests can pursue damages from the Vatican in a negligence lawsuit, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II lets the men pursue their claim that top church officials should have warned the public or local authorities of known or suspected sexual abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
William McMurry, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the ruling could open the way to take depositions of Vatican officials and to get copies of church records and documents.
“Our whole purpose is to hold the Vatican accountable,” McMurry said.
Vatican officials declined to comment. Jeffrey Lena, the Berkeley, Calif.-based attorney for the Holy See, said the ruling is based on a preliminary legal challenge in which the judge must treat the facts stated in the complaint as if they were true. Even without providing evidence to rebut the claims, Heyburn dismissed much of the lawsuit, Lena said.
The judge dismissed claims that the Holy See was negligent in failing to provide safe care to the children entrusted to the clergy, along with claims of deceit and misrepresentation by the Vatican.
“While the plaintiffs’ attorney may think of this as a favorable ruling, in many respects it is a ruling favorable to the Holy See,” Lena said.
Lena said the remaining allegations rely on the unproved assumption that bishops in the United States are acting as “officials” or “employees” of the Holy See, something Lena said would not be borne out as the case proceeds.
“Without that linchpin, the plaintiffs case will not proceed,” Lena said.
Many lawsuits stemming from the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis have named the pope, the Vatican and other high-ranking church officials but have failed.
The Holy See is typically immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. Plaintiffs’ lawyers who have sought to challenge that protection often could not serve Vatican officials with the papers, among other logistical problems.
McMurry is seeking to have the lawsuit certified as a class action, alleging thousands of victims exist nationwide. McMurry represented 243 sex abuse victims that settled with the Archdiocese of Louisville in 2003 for $25.3 million.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
One of the three plaintiffs is Michael Turner of Louisville, who also filed the first lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Louisville. Turner was molested by the Rev. Louis E. Miller in the 1970s while attending St. Aloysius Church in Pewee Valley.
Miller was removed from the priesthood last year by the late Pope John Paul II after pleading guilty in 2003 to sexually abusing Turner and other children in Kentucky. He is serving a 13-year prison sentence.
The other two plaintiffs, James H. O’Bryan and Donald E. Poppe, have not settled with any diocese, McMurry has said. Both live in California and allege that they were abused by priests while growing up in Louisville.
O’Bryan, 83, contends he was abused by a “Father Lawrence” at St. Cecilia Church in western Louisville in 1928. An archdiocesan spokeswoman has said a Rev. Lawrence Kuntz worked at St. Cecelia from 1928 to 1935 and died in 1952.
Poppe alleges he was molested by the Rev. Arthur Wood, who died in 1983 and was named as an abuser by 39 plaintiffs who settled with the archdiocese.
In June, a federal court in Oregon issued a similar decision, ruling there was enough of a link between the Vatican and an accused priest for him to be considered a Vatican employee under Oregon law. That ruling has been appealed.
McMurry said the Kentucky case is different from the others because the Holy See, the legal name for the Vatican, is the only defendant. The other cases named multiple defendants.
“There are no distractions in our case,” McMurry said.
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