PORTLAND, OR -- In a rare legal feat, a man who claims to have been sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the 1960s can conduct discovery on the Vatican, a federal judge ruled.
The order compelling the Vatican to produce documents in the 11-year old lawsuit marks an unheard-of step in sex-abuses cases against the Catholic Church. While archdioceses in the United States have been found liable in similar cases, this case boldly seeks to take the matter all the way to Rome, holding the governmental body of the denomination accountable, and not just the North American arm of the vast organization.
The plaintiff, who sued anonymously as John Doe, seeks to hold the church accountable through the Holy See for the abuse he says he suffered at the hands of the Rev. Andrew Ronan who died in 1992.
The Holy See is the central governing body of the Roman Catholic Church and is a sovereign entity recognized by international law, consisting of the pope and the Roman Curia. It usually represents and speaks for the whole of the church. As the entity lies in Vatican City, the term Vatican is used as a metonym for the Holy See.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled that the plaintiff is entitled to limited discovery to determine whether the priest was an employee of the Vatican.
The Vatican has in the past denied discovery based on prior legal cases in which priests in America were listed as employees of the various orders that exercised control over their activities.
Morsman indicated that this fact does not preclude the possibility of the priest also being employed by the Vatican.
"[W]hether Ronan was an "employee" of the Holy See is governed by Oregon law," Morsman wrote. "In Oregon, an employment relationship turns on the 'right of one party to control the activities of the other.'"
Doe is attempting to hold the Vatican vicariously liable for the sexual abuse, as well as for retaining the priest as an employee and failing to warn others of the danger that Ronan allegedly presented.
"Plaintiff has proffered evidence that tends to show the Holy See knew of Ronan's propensities and that in some cases, the Holy See exercised direct control over the conduct, placement, and removal of individual priests accused of similar sexual misconduct," the judge's order, filed Thursday, states.
The Vatican has so far refused to respond one way or the other to these claims. According to contemporaneous media coverage of Doe's confidentially filed 2002 lawsuit, Ronan bounced from Ireland to Chicago and then to Portland, where he ultimately allegedly abused Doe.
In an opposing memorandum, the church claims to have repeatedly explained that it does not supervise individual priests' activities - a task reserved for the local diocese.
Mossman gave the Vatican 60 days to produce the limited discovery, noting that Doe failed to prove that much of the information he requested was necessary to his case.
"Plaintiff is not entitled to discovery relating to the Holy See's commercial activity in the United States because he cannot demonstrate that such discovery is crucial," Mossman wrote. The judge also denied Doe the right to depose any current or former officials.