Courts Weigh Whether Vatican Controls Bishops

the pope, seen in shadow i i

As two lawsuits make their way through U.S. federal courts, attorneys are requesting to depose several Vatican officials, including the pope. Pier Paolo Cito/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pier Paolo Cito/AP
the pope, seen in shadow

As two lawsuits make their way through U.S. federal courts, attorneys are requesting to depose several Vatican officials, including the pope.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP

At the heart of two lawsuits that are working their way through the federal courts lies one question: Does the Vatican control its Catholic bishops?

The answer could determine whether the Vatican can be sued in U.S. courts and be forced to open up its secret archives.

A Decentralized Church?

The Vatican's relationship with its bishops surfaced again this week in the case of the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, an Indian priest who served in northern Minnesota in 2004 and 2005. After the priest returned to India, two teenage girls from Minnesota accused him of molesting them. Now the local prosecutor wants him back in the U.S. to face charges.

According to documents and interviews, the Vatican wrote Jeyapaul's bishop in India and asked that "Father Jeyapaul's priestly life be monitored so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create a scandal."

Mike Finnegan, the attorney for one of the young women, says Jeyapaul is now overseeing 40 schools in the diocese. He says the Vatican should have removed him from ministry.

"Pope Benedict has absolute power and control over that bishop in India," Finnegan says. "And if Pope Benedict wanted something done and told this bishop to do it, the bishop would absolutely have to do it."

But Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena says the church cooperated with U.S. authorities, supplying them with Jeyapaul's address so that they could try to extradite him. He adds that people do not realize how administratively decentralized the Catholic Church is.

"The pope is not a five-star general ordering troops around," Lena says. "He is not Louis XIV telling his minions what to do. The 'military command center' or 'absolute authority' models of the church in which Rome dictates orders by royal fiat is just wrong."

Lena says it is the bishop who controls his diocese and is responsible to operate it within the framework of canon law.

That dispute — is a bishop an employee of the Vatican or not? — is the central issue raised by two lawsuits in U.S. federal court. One case involves the Rev. Andrew Ronan, a Servites order priest who was moved from Ireland to Chicago to Portland, Ore., and who admitted abusing minors in each place. Ronan has died, but an alleged victim sued not only the order but also the Vatican.

"The Ronan case, because it involves the international movement of the priest and a documentary trail that goes from the priest through the superiors to Rome, looked like our best shot to get to the Vatican," says Jeffrey Anderson, who represents the plaintiff.

Piercing Sovereign Immunity

That will be no easy task, as the Vatican is considered a sovereign state, and U.S. courts are reluctant to claim jurisdiction over foreign countries. To pierce the sovereign immunity, Anderson must show that the priest abused the victim in his capacity as an employee of the Vatican. Under Oregon's law — which is far more liberal than that of other states — the Vatican might be held liable for the priest's actions.

Another case in Kentucky is a little broader: It alleges that the bishops were acting as employees of the church when they moved around suspected priests. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and an adviser to plaintiffs' in both cases, believes the bishops are akin to senior managers of the Vatican.

"The Vatican appoints bishops. The Vatican fires bishops. It transfers bishops," Doyle says. "The Vatican controls what they do on a day-to-day basis through the code of canon law. Everything a bishop does is determined or interpreted by the Vatican."

Not so, says Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne University. He says the pope doesn't pay the bishop's salary or get involved in the minutia of running a diocese.

"There's no doubt that the pope has a certain level of jurisdiction over dioceses in the world," he says. "But jurisdiction does not translate into control, and for them to be employees, you have to show some level of control."

Cafardi says these lawsuits do not merely attack longstanding law on suing foreign states, they also ask the U.S. courts to transform the Catholic Church.

"If these cases succeed, they will have succeeded in restructuring the Catholic Church in a way that the church has not structured itself," he says. "And I would see that as a very serious threat to freedom of religion."

Demands To Depose The Pope

Still, federal appellate courts in the 6th and 9th Circuits have said the cases may proceed. And recently, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the departments of Justice and State for their views. Taking these as a green light, attorneys for the plaintiffs are filing requests for thousands of documents in the Vatican archives, and even demanding to take a deposition from the pope.

"I want to unearth every evidentiary trail that leads from every offending priest directly to the Vatican and ultimately take the depositions of every official, all the way to Rome and to the pope himself," says plaintiff's attorney Anderson.

But Joseph Dellapenna, an expert on sovereign immunity law at Villanova University, says there's little chance that lawyers will be able to do discovery on the pope himself.

He says a court might grant the lawyers access to lesser Vatican officials. But he says getting a court order doesn't mean they will get the goods.

"If the documents are not in the United States," he says, "if they're in the Vatican, if the persons you want to depose are in the Vatican, chances are you're not going to be able to do it, even if an American court rules that they are not immune."

He says that sovereign countries often refuse to comply — especially when they feel the lawsuit is a political attack.

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