Lawsuits Hit Higher in Catholic Hierarchy ; Several New Claims in Sexual-Abuse Cases Include Evidence That Will Test the Limits of Accountability

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The legal challenges against the Roman Catholic Church, once focused mainly on individual priests and dioceses, are increasingly targeting high church officials for complicity in failing to protect children from sex abuse.

The broadening scope of the lawsuits could pose new political and financial problems for a church in the United States already going through one of the biggest crises in its history.

While suits in the past have named the pope and high church officials in such cases, several new claims include damaging internal documents and letters that, experts say, will test the legal limits of accountability within the church hierarchy.

In just the past two weeks:

* A lawsuit filed in Boston produced more than 800 documents showing, lawyers say, that Cardinal Bernard Law and other officials knew for years that former priest Paul Shanley was an alleged child abuser, but they assigned him to churches anyway.

* A suit using racketeering laws charged two bishops, a former bishop, and their dioceses in Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee with covering up the sexual abuse of seminary students to keep contributions flowing.

* A civil case filed in Florida names the Vatican, the bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla., and a New York order of priests for conspiring to conceal wrongdoing by a priest and negligence for not doing more to stop it. The plaintiff's lawyer says he named the Holy See based on quantities of internal documents that support the conspiracy theory.

The growing number of civil suits comes as prosecutors in several cities across the country are looking at possible criminal action against church officials. At the same time, some states are considering rolling back statutes of limitation on child-sex-abuse crimes - a key impediment to prosecution in such cases.

"It is not unlike the Berlin Wall," says Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame University. "Once something begins to crumble, to implode, the process happens quickly."

Proving complicity or coverup in church sex-abuse cases, however, is difficult. While individual priests have long been prosecuted, top officials have been insulated from attack by the argument that they are not responsible for, and cannot control, the actions of a "rogue priest" who goes against church doctrine.

Yet that argument falters if it can be shown church officials knew about a priest's abuse, or had many reasons to believe a priest was an abuser, but assigned him to work with children anyway. Then a different set of standards apply, prosecutors say.

In those circumstances, laws in every state that bar anyone from aiding or abetting criminal acts come into play.

"If church officials did something that helped someone in abusing more children, they may be criminally liable," says Victor Vieth, a child-abuse specialist with the National District Attorneys Association. …