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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is Morning Edition. From NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Until recently, no one thought the Vatican could be sued for covering up sex abuse. No one believed that its secret archives could be opened to lawyers or its treasury subject to monetary damages. That's because the Vatican is considered an independent state with sovereign immunity. But now, two courts are entertaining the idea that lawsuits are possible. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Michael Turner's ordeal 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 could not shake his anger.

Mr. MICHAEL TURNER: I was not truly mad at the right person. I kept on going up a ladder and it's - you know, you're looking at cardinals and the pope. You know, even as far as the pope kne, you know, that this was this bad. That's what truly upset me.

HAGERTY: Now Turner is in court again suing the Vatican. Until recently, no federal court has allowed a case to proceed against the Vatican because it has sovereign immunity. But there are exceptions to the immunity if Turner can show that American 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.

And recently, a federal court in Oregon and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio said they are open to the idea. Turner's lawyer, William McMurray, won the victory in the Sixth Circuit.

Mr. WILLIAM MCMURRAY (Lawyer): Never before has a court said that victims of childhood sex abuse can come into court and hold a foreign nation like the Vatican accountable.

HAGERTY: It's a small step with huge implications. McMurray is already preparing discovery, demands for documents from the Vatican's secret archives, as well as a witness list that includes Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr. ANTHONY PICARELLO (Counselor, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): I think folks will try, and certainly nothing is impossible, but I think they have a very much an uphill battle.

HAGERTY: That's Anthony Picarello, the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who are not defendants in this suit. Picarello doubts the plaintiffs will get very far. He says they'll never be able to prove that the bishops were mere employees following Vatican orders to cover up a crime.

Mr. PICARELLO: Certainly no one has panicked.

HAGERTY: But McMurray thinks they should be. He believes the connection between the Vatican and the bishops is plain as day.

Mr. MCMURRAY: If you look at it from a 40,000-foot view, what you see is bishops, over a century, doing exactly the same thing. Bishops moving priests from parish to parish, abusive priests from archdiocese to diocese, and back and forth across the country 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.

HAGERTY: As evidence, he points to a document signed by Pope John XXIII that tells bishops how to handle 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…

Mr. PATRICK WALL (Former Benedictine Priest): Oh my, I can't believe they just handed over the map.

HAGERTY: Wall used to handle sex abuse cases for the church. He left the priesthood and is now an investigator for plaintiffs.

Mr. WALL: This is how I was instructed as a priest to handle the different accusations. I had never seen the document, but low and behold, that's exactly the process I was taught as a 27-year-old priest of how to do this.

HAGERTY: And the document states that abuse cases must be, quote, "pursued in a most secretive way."

Mr. WALL: Every single person involved in the case is absolutely obligated to the grave to remain silent, otherwise they will be excommunicated and damned to hell.

HAGERTY: But Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne Law School, says this document applies only to internal church trials, and has nothing to do with reporting abuse to prosecutors.

Mr. NICHOLAS CAFARDI (Canon Lawyer, Duquesne Law School): It doesn't say that civil authorities are not to be notified. 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.

HAGERTY: Cafardi says this document reflects a culture of secrecy that, quote, "benefited priest sexual abusers," but that does not mean the Vatican ordered a cover-up. Still, he worries the case has gotten this far.

Mr. CAFARDI: I personally do not think that their theories of liability will hold up. But, you know, any time 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.

HAGERTY: He adds that the case is a long way from a trial, much less a jury. And many believe that the Vatican will keep it's sovereign immunity in the end. In the meantime, plaintiffs' lawyers across the country are watching these cases and several are preparing similar lawsuits. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see some documents and a videotaped deposition at npr.org.

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