Sunday, May 16, 2010

Good and bad from the Associated Press

While no one I know defends those Catholic priests who abused children or any bishop who knowingly and willfully covered up for those priests, I think few Catholics support the idea that the victims of abuse ought to be able to sue the Vatican. Aside from questions concerning the sovereignty of the Vatican, there is also the indisputable fact that in our litigation-happy world, permitting people to sue the Vatican because they don't like something a local bishop did would lead to thousands upon thousands of frivolous lawsuits that would be a waste of time and money for everyone involved--except the lawyers, who would profit to an unprecedented degree.

But the defense against the idea that the Vatican should be sued isn't the most interesting part of this AP article:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Monday will make its most detailed argument yet for why it is not liable for bishops who allowed priests to molest children in the U.S., in a motion that could affect other efforts to sue the Holy See in American courts, The Associated Press has learned.

In a motion to dismiss a lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, the Holy See is expected to argue that a key Vatican document calling for secrecy in church trials for sex abuse cases was not, as victims' lawyers say, proof of a Vatican-orchestrated cover up. The Vatican's U.S. attorney, Jeffrey Lena, said Sunday there was no evidence the document was even known to the archdiocese in question — much less used.

In addition, the Holy See is expected to assert that bishops aren't Vatican employees because they aren't paid by Rome, don't act on Rome's behalf and aren't controlled day-to-day by the pope — factors courts use to determine whether employers are liable for the actions of their workers, Lena told the AP.

He said he would suggest to the court that it should avoid using the religious nature of the relationship between bishops and the pope altogether as a basis for civil liability, because it entangles the court in an analysis of complicated religious doctrine that dates back to the apostles. [Emphasis added--E.M.]

It's not every day that the apostolicity of the Church, one of her four marks, gets mentioned in the secular press, even as part of an indirect quote.

Of course, while I like that part of the AP article, I have to find fault with this phrase from the first paragraph: "The Vatican on Monday will make its most detailed argument yet for why it is not liable for bishops who allowed priests to molest children in the U.S...." I know some bishops are not blameless, in that they shuffled priests around or tried to look the other way when situations involving child abuse by priests surfaced in their dioceses. But not even Cardinal Law can be said to have "...allowed priests to molest children..." and the AP should know better than to use such an inaccurate and inflammatory framing of the issue.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I agree. First, the notion that every civil tort under the sun has a remedy at law, or can be financially compensated, is ludicrous. Life isn't always fair. That's one reason we look forward to a better life to come.

Second, in my home state (Wisconsin), the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that such lawsuits cannot be heard, because the courts have no jurisdiction over personnel decisions by a church. Both case law and statute law in the state are very careful to provide that whatever the church's rule is on matters of property, personnel, etc., is binding on the courts. The First Amendment (and parallel state constitutional provisions) simply bars any civil jurisdiction.

That is different of course from criminal prosecution of an individual who committed a crime -- that is not protected.

Finally, international civil liability suits are generally bad law. Jurisdictional questions are too complex. It is not unlike being sued in a British court for libel, because of publication in the USA of material that is constitutionally protected under American law. Suppress distribution in England, sue an English bookseller for carrying libelous material, but there is no jurisdiction to sue a citizen of another polity for publication. Ditto for decisions made in the Vatican, but the Vatican.

If someone wants to leave the Roman Catholic Church, that is their personal choice, but lawsuits don't make sense. And how would a judgement be enforced, anyway? Generally, there have to at least be assets that ARE in the court's jurisdiction. It would be a stretch to say that the Bishop of Rome "owns" the property of each parish, no matter how hierarchical the church is.

SC said...

In terms of "allowed", you'd have to prove the Church could've disallowed the abuse, at which point you'd quickly discover the Church's ability to enforce her own rules is very near an absolute zero. At best she can declare the religious implications of crimes against her law, but the criminal can always ignore it and claim the contrary to anyone who asks him. Why else do we have so werewolves heretics running around in shepherd's clothing?