(Vatican Radio) The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed
the Plaintiff’s appeal in the Oregon federal case of John V. Doe v Holy See on Monday,
bringing to an end the litigation which began in 2002. The case involved an alleged
case of the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest in Oregon in 1965.
Jeffrey S. Lena, Counsel for the Holy See, published the entire documentation held by the Vatican concerning the case in 2011. This showed that the Holy See was only informed of the misconduct a year after the abuse was reported, and the priest was then laicized within weeks.
In response to the latest development, Lena pointed out “the dismissal – which was not the result of any settlement or other payment by the Holy See – was entered at the voluntary request of the Plaintiff’s own lawyers, who were faced with an impending deadline to reply to the Holy See’s appellate briefing in the case,” and said the lawsuit “never should have been filed in the first place.”
Lena issued a statement on the latest developments, and later conducted a short interview via email with Vatican Radio about the case. Both are reproduced in full below.
STATEMENT OF JEFFREY S. LENA, COUNSEL FOR THE HOLY SEE
REGARDING WITHDRAWAL OF PLAINTIFF’S APPEAL IN
JOHN V. DOE v. HOLY SEE
On August 5, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed Plaintiff’s appeal in the Oregon federal case of John V. Doe v Holy See, thereby definitively drawing to a close litigation commenced with media fanfare in 2002. The dismissal – which was not the result of any settlement or other payment by the Holy See – was entered at the voluntary request of the Plaintiff’s own lawyers, who were faced with an impending deadline to reply to the Holy See’s appellate briefing in the case.
John V. Doe is the third case of its kind against the Holy See to disintegrate in the face of legal and factual challenge. O’Bryan v. Holy See, filed in a Kentucky federal court in 2004, was withdrawn by the plaintiffs’ counsel in 2010 in the face of the Holy See’s pending motion to dismiss. John Doe 16 v. Holy See – a case filed in a Wisconsin federal court in 2010 in a circus-like media atmosphere – was withdrawn under similar circumstances.
Like O’Bryan and John Doe 16, the John V. Doe case was based on factual misstatements and fallacious syllogisms that misled the public for years. But it has ended with the unceremonious withdrawal of a lawsuit against the Holy See that never should have been filed in the first place.
Interview via email by Jeffrey Lena with Vatican Radio
1. What has happened in the current case, in layman’s terms.
This case was based on a couple of simple and erroneous ideas about the Catholic Church. First, that all priests are controlled by the Holy See and second that the Holy See receives information about the activities of all priests and makes specific decisions, either directly or “by and through” dioceses and religious orders, about them. Plaintiff’s basic theory of the case was that if this control existed it would show that the Holy See should be held responsible for the sexual abuse committed by priests.
The problem with the plaintiff’s theory is fairly straightforward: this is not how the Catholic Church works. In reality, priests are under the control of their local superiors, who make decisions about their worthiness to serve in any particular position; priests are not “employees” of the Holy See by virtue of their clerical status, and the Holy See does not receive and maintain information on all the world’s priests or on all the sexual abuse cases relating to priests throughout the world.
There is another aspect of the case important to recall. The attorneys for the plaintiff wanted to try to show that the United States federal court could assert jurisdiction over the Holy See on the theory that the Holy See engaged in “commercial activity” by virtue of the fact that some contributions to the Peter’s Pence fund are made by the faithful every year and that priests “solicit” these contributions. Under this theory, the Church would have been treated effectively as a large corporation with the Pope a sort of Chief Executive Officer. This idea was strongly rejected by the court, and every court to have examined the issue.
One other notable feature of this case is that the judge had the opportunity to closely examine the facts. Normally in these cases, the issues are decided on a purely legal basis. But in this case, all the parties and witnesses exchanged documents and provided all those documents to the judge. This permitted the judge to examine very closely the actual facts related to the priest involved and whether there were any connections to the Holy See. What the documents show, very clearly, is that the Holy See did not have any knowledge of this priest’s propensity for abuse until after the abuse occurred, when it was notified by the petition for laicization that arrived from the Priest’s religious order. And when that petition arrived, it was granted by the Holy See without delay.
Thus, as soon as the judge understood these facts – the real facts rather than the allegations stated in the plaintiff’s complaint – he dismissed the case.
2. There have been several similar cases. What happened with them, and are there any still outstanding?
As noted in my Statement, there have been two other cases of particular significance – the O’Bryan case in Kentucky and the John Doe 16 (“Murphy”) case in Wisconsin. These cases proposed similar theories and met a similar fate: they began with very strong complaints stating what appeared to be facts showing the involvement of the Holy See in local Church affairs specifically relating to the conduct of priests. But when the cases were carefully analyzed and examined by a judge, it became clear that that were not sustainable. There have been several other cases that were not litigated because the attorneys for the plaintiffs involved abandoned them in the very early stages.
Currently there are no cases “outstanding.” It is always possible that another case could arise. When it does, it will be examined and defended as necessary on its individual merits.
3. What concrete steps has the Holy See taken to combat cases of sexual abuse?
In these last several years, Benedict XVI, and now Francis, have provided moral leadership in the area by acknowledging not only the problem, but also setting expectations that the Bishop’s Conferences of the world must create solid frameworks for abuse awareness and prevention. And this, clearly, is the future. We have seen the widespread damage that abuse has done to bodies and souls. The harm has been great. In some areas, pews have been abandoned over this issue. And yet there is much room for hope and renewal. In dioceses where aggressive programs of abuse awareness and prevention have been put into place – and I mean not just by the fine and careful words of Bishops, but by the dedication of time, resources, and the commitment of parishioners and working parish priests – real change can be effected quickly. The simple lesson to be learned is that once the problem is openly acknowledged and confronted, it can be constructively addressed. My hope and expectation is that the Catholic Church will come to fully embrace the view that abuse awareness and prevention is one of the highest pastoral values, and that the Church itself will come to be looked upon by all other institutions in society as having provided models of prevention and never again sources of scandal.