Michael Turner's case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals:
Michael Turner's ordeal, it turned out, was not remarkable. About 90 other boys were abused by Father Louis Miller, a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville in the 1960s. The priest is in prison and the archdiocese settled for more than $25 million with Turner and others five years ago.
But after the settlement, Turner couldn't shake his anger.
"I was not truly mad at the right person," he says. "I kept going up a ladder, and I was looking at cardinals and even the Pope knew, you know, that this was this bad. That's what truly upset me."
Now Turner is in court again — suing the Vatican. [PDF] Until recently, no federal court has allowed a case to proceed against the Vatican — and few really believed the Holy See would ever be open to lawyers or its treasury subject to money damages. It is considered a foreign state with sovereign immunity.
But there are exceptions to the immunity, including one called the "tortious act" exception. If Turner can show that U.S. bishops are officials of the Vatican, and that they harmed children by failing to report sex abuse, then he has a chance of getting to trial.
Courts Show Interest
Recently, a federal court in Oregon and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio said they're open to this idea.
"Never before has a court said that victims of childhood sex abuse can come into U.S. courts and hold a foreign nation such as the Vatican accountable," says Turner's attorney, William McMurry, who won the preliminary victory in the Sixth Circuit.
It's a small step with huge implications. McMurry is readying demands for documents from the Vatican's secret archives, as well as a witness list that includes Pope Benedict XVI, who oversaw all investigations in his previous position as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.
But many think such visions are a fantasy.
"Certainly nothing is impossible, but I think they have very much an uphill battle," says Anthony Picarello, the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is a not a defendant in the suit. (The Vatican's lawyer declined to speak on tape.)
'No One Is Panicked'
Picarello believes the lawsuit will fail. First, because the U.S. Constitution provides for the separation of church and state, U.S. courts don't like to get involved in internal church policy. Second, to prove their case, victims must show that the bishops were officials of the Vatican following its orders.
Given the obstacles, he says, "certainly no one is panicked."
But plaintiff's attorney William McMurry thinks they should be. He believes the connection between the Vatican and the bishops is plain as day.
"If you look at it from a 40,000-foot view, what you see is bishops, over a century, doing exactly the same thing," he says. "Bishops moving priests from parish to parish, from archdiocese to diocese, even some to foreign countries. And not one — not one — reporting as required by state law this known or suspected child abuse. Now that just doesn't happen by accident."
The Role Of John XXIII
As Exhibit A, McMurry points to a document, called "Crimen Sollicitationis," signed by Pope John XXIII. The document tells bishops how to handle, among other things, child sex-abuse cases. The document was written in 1962 but only surfaced five years ago.
When former Benedictine priest Patrick Wall saw it, he thought, "Oh my, I can't believe they just handed over the map!"
Wall used to handle sex-abuse cases for the church. He left the priesthood and is now an investigator for plaintiffs.
"This is how I was instructed as a priest to handle the different accusations," he recalls. "I had never seen the document but, lo and behold, that's exactly the process I was taught as a 27-year-old priest of how to do this."
The document states that abuse cases must be "pursued in a most secretive way," and that all involved be "restrained by a perpetual silence." That includes the bishop, the priest prosecutor and the judge, the accuser and the accused, even the notary.
"Every single person involved in the case is absolutely obligated to the grave to remain silent," Wall says. "Otherwise they will be excommunicated and damned to hell."
A Law Professor's View
But Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne Law School, says this document applies only to internal church trials, and has nothing to do with reporting abuse to prosecutors.
"It doesn't say that civil authorities aren't to be notified," he says. "It doesn't say that the existence of the crime itself is to be kept secret or denied. It simply says the church's own internal legal process is to be kept secret or confidential."
Cafardi says this document reflects a culture of secrecy that "benefited priest sexual abusers," but that does not mean the Vatican ordered a coverup. He says the plaintiff's attorneys must prove that bishops are employees or officials of the Vatican to pierce the blanket of immunity, but he says in fact, bishops are more like CEOs of diocesan corporations.
Still, Cafardi finds it noteworthy that the case has gotten this far.
"I personally did not think that theories of liability will hold up," he said. "But anytime you're in front of a jury in a matter involving child sexual abuse, you're not always dealing with a rational perception of the facts, because the victims are so in fact so extremely sympathetic."
He adds that the case is a long way from a trial, much less a jury. And many believe that the Vatican will keep its sovereign immunity in the end.
In the meantime, lawyers across the country are watching these cases, and several are preparing similar lawsuits.