Unholy Immunity: Pope's Claim to Be Head of State May Help with Legal Defense in Abuse Lawsuits, but It Raises Troubling Church-State Questions

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Unholy Immunity: Pope's Claim to Be Head of State May Help with Legal Defense in Abuse Lawsuits, but It Raises Troubling Church-State Questions


Boston, Rob, Church & State


The documents leaked to The New York Times in March were shocking.

A collection of internal church papers outlined how, over the course of 24 years, a Roman Catholic priest molested nearly 200 boys at a school for deaf children in Wisconsin - and how church officials learned about the abuse but did nothing to hold the abuser accountable.

The Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy left a trail of misery and anger at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis. Yet church officials who knew about his misconduct never punished him. In 1974, Murphy was transferred to Superior, Wisc., where he continued to work with children. He died in 1998, never having been charged with a crime or defrocked.

The story sounds remarkable. But what's even more amazing is that it came to light at all. Church officials have fought for years to keep documents such as this secret. Determined to shine the light of public scrutiny on this ugly matter, Jeffrey R. Anderson and Mike Finnegan, two attorneys representing five men who lived at the home as children, turned the papers over to The Times.

The newspaper reported that the documents "include letters between bishops and the Vatican, victims' affidavits, the handwritten notes of an expert on sexual disorders who interviewed Father Murphy and minutes of a final meeting on the case at the Vatican."

With a track record this long and detailed, it would seem that the attorneys for the men who were abused as boys have an open-and-shut case. Yet it's far from clear that they will ever receive justice in an American court.

If the leaders of a corporation or secular non-profit had behaved this way, they would most likely be in prison by now and their operation shut down. Some victims of abuse have won judgments against church dioceses through civil cases, but the denomination's top leadership has remained beyond reach. The release of incriminating documents has embarrassed the pope and other church leaders, generating a flurry of apologies and papal statements marked by various forms of verbal judo - but it hasn't yet held the church's leadership accountable.

How can this be possible?

As the wide-ranging scandal over child sexual abuse has played out over the years, church officials have increasingly relied on what they see as their ace in the hole to protect the Vatican, the pope and top church officials: the concept of immunity.

The Holy See, the institutional headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, is considered a sovereign state by most other nations. It has full diplomatic relations and exchanges ambassadors with 170 countries, including the United States, and enjoys permanent observer status at the United Nations - the only church so classified.

A top Vatican official reiterated the papal claim of immunity last month.

Giuseppe dalla Torre, head of the Vatican's tribunal, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the pope is immune from the actions of foreign courts.

"The pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state," dalla Torre said.

But the Vatican official may be interpreting the law too broadly. It's difficult, though not impossible, to sue another country in American courts. Those seeking to do so must contend with a complex piece of legislation known as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976.

FSIA bars most lawsuits against sovereign nations in U.S. courts. But it does recognize a handful of exceptions. One of them deals with cases where an employee or an official of a country does harm to a U.S. resident on American soil.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), noted that claims of immunity are just the latest in a long list of techniques church officials have used to block lawsuits over molestation of children.

"Immunity is just one in a long, long series of seemingly endless legal arguments church individuals make to avoid having to disclose the truth," Clohessy told Church & State. …

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