Vatican Lawyer Jeffrey Lena on Immunity and Responsibility


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(30 Jun 10 - RV) Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lawsuit that challenges the Vatican's immunity from prosecution in clerical sex abuse cases.

Jeffrey Lena is the California-based attorney currently representing the Holy See in the Oregon case of Holy See vs John Doe.

In the following interview, Mr Lena responds to erroneous reporting in the mass media, and reiterates that "the fact that the Holy See is not involved, and the priest in question was not an employee of the Holy See, is not to say that the victim is not truly a victim. He surely suffered as no child ever deserves to suffer, and there is no question in this case that this man was victimized by a priest":

Q: Mr Lena, The media reading of the issue can appear to be somewhat simplistic.
Headlines is several Italian newspapers were variations on the theme of:
- "Vatican risks bankruptcy"
- "U.S. Supreme Court denuies Holy See immunity"
- "Green light to million-dollar pay-outs for abuse victims"
- "Pope could be called to testify"...

Mr Lena: "As to the risk that the Vatican may go into bankruptcy, that is completely unfounded. In the first instance this case is still discussing jurisdiction. We haven't gotten anywhere near the question of whether there is liability in the case, so nobody should be concerned about that. In addition even if there were a question of liability, there are very strict rules about collection and it's not even an issue in this case.
The second point was relating to the Supreme Court denying immunity. The Supreme Court did not deny immunity. What the Supreme Court did was decide that it wasn't going to address a question which we had wished to bring before it. That was a question that on the substantive law I think we were right. The United States agreed with us, but the Supreme Court simply determined that at this time, it was not interested in hearing the case. The fact that it wasn't interested in hearing the case, as I say, did not deny immunity and was no comment on the merits of our position.

‘Green light to payouts' - no, its not a green light to payouts. As I say we are still discussing jurisdiction in the case and that's simply not on the radar at all.

I did read in several of the Italian papers discussion of the depositions of the Pope and Cardinal Bertone and Cardinal Sodano. That is all completely unfounded. I don't have a doubt that there will be an attempt. I think that the attorney on the other side is interested in trying. The law will protect them however.
It is important to acknowledge that the fact that the Holy See is not involved and that we must clearly take this position, and that the priest in question was not an employee of the Holy See, is not to say that the victim is not truly a victim here. He surely suffered as no child ever deserves to suffer, and there is no question in this case that this young man was victimized by a priest. However, responsibility for damages for that suffering, which justly should be paid, fall upon the religious order which supervised him, controlled his activities, and transferred him. Not on the Holy See.

Q: The central argument seems to be how to prove whether or not particular individuals were or were not employees of the Holy See. How does one go about doing that?

Mr Lena: "Well, let me say as an initial matter, this case like some of the cases which have been attempted in the past, brought a variety of issues. The plaintiffs attempted to claim fraud, they attempted to claim negligence, they attempted to claim conspiracy. We have already eliminated all of those claims from the case long ago, notwithstanding the fact that those are all still appearing in the headlines. So the case is presently narrowed down to one issue, which is whether or not the priest in question, Andrew Ronan, was an employee of the Holy See. Now the factors that generally determine whether a person is an employee, include day-to-day control of the person, payment to the person for services rendered, insurance for the person, the understanding of the parties as to whether or not the person is employed, and there are a variety of other factors. None of these factors are met really in this case. This is a priest who was entirely unknown to the Holy See until after the events in question. The plaintiffs attorney has suggested in the papers that because this priest had gone to Ireland and then returned to Ireland , somehow that was an "international transfer" and therefore the Holy See must be involved, and that's just really based upon a misunderstanding of how the Catholic Church works, of how Religious Orders operate and various other misunderstandings.

As to evidence, there is some evidence in the case, and this is important to point out. Mr. Anderson, who is the attorney for the other side, hasn't mentioned this to the press, but the fact is that he has gathered a lot of evidence and it all points in the other direction. It suggests that this priest was a priest of a religious order active in the United States and Ireland which had full control over this priest and was knowledgeable about this priest, but that neither the diocese involved nor the Holy See had any knowledge or control over him".

Q. Is the Supreme Court decision likely to impact on other cases currently being heard in the U.S. ? And, at worst, is it likely to open the way to a plethora of new lawsuits against the Vatican ?

Mr Lena: "I would not exclude that someone may attempt to file another lawsuit. Its important to understand that the obstacles which that lawsuit would face are exactly the same obstacles that this lawsuit faces. The denial of the petition for certiorari, by the Supreme Court which again I say was not a denial in any way of immunity, related to a very narrow issue, to the scope of employment under the federal law. This is an issue that has no bearing on any other case. Presently there is a case in Wisconsin known as the Murphy case which Mr. Anderson wishes to bring against the Holy See, that case is thus far completely inactive. Then there is a case in Kentucky , that case addresses a very different issue which is whether or not the bishop in the Archdiocese of Louisville is an employee of the Holy See a theory that is equally unfounded. So those are the two cases thus far and there really are none other. As I say, it may be that out of misperception one or two cases are now filed, but I don't anticipate that those will have any more success than these cases have.