Vatican wants legal shield to protect Pope from probe
Head of state has immunity from abuse questions, lawyers to argue
The Vatican is seeking to use a legal shield to prevent Pope Benedict from being dragged deeper into the clergy sex abuse scandal in the hope that the Pontiff may be spared from answering questions under oath in a US lawsuit.
Court documents reveal that Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the Pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests were not employees of the Vatican, and that a 1962 document is not the "smoking gun" that provides proof of a cover-up.
The Holy See is trying to fend off the first US case to reach the stage of determining whether victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Catholic priests who molested children.
The case was filed in 2004 in Kentucky by three men who claim they were abused by priests and claim negligence by the Vatican. Their lawyer, William McMurry, is seeking class-action status for the case.
"This case is the only case that has ever been filed against the Vatican which has as its sole objective to hold the Vatican accountable for all the priest sex abuse ever committed in this country," he said.
The Vatican's strategy is to be formally filed in the coming weeks. Vatican officials refused to comment last night.
Plaintiffs in the Kentucky suit argue that US diocesan bishops were employees of the Holy See and that Rome was therefore responsible for their alleged wrongdoing.
They say a 1962 Vatican document mandated that bishops do not report sex abuse cases to police, but the Vatican has argued that there is nothing in the document that prevented bishops from doing so.
But the hurdles remain enormously high to force a foreign government to turn over confidential documents, let alone to subject a head of state to questioning.
The US considers the Vatican a sovereign state -- the two have had diplomatic relations since 1984.
Mr McMurry last week filed a new court motion seeking to depose the Pope; Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, currently Vatican secretary of state; Cardinal William Levada, an American who currently heads the congregation; and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's representative in the US.
Jeffrey Lena, the reclusive architect of the Vatican's legal strategy in the US, says the Pope's deposition would break the Vatican's own laws on confidentiality.
"If Pope Benedict XVI is ordered to testify by a US court, foreign courts could feel empowered to order discovery against the president of the US regarding, for example, such issues as CIA renditions," Mr Lena wrote in a 2008 brief.
Mr McMurry is eager to find out what the Vatican knew and did, in particular, about the Rev Louis Miller, who was removed from the priesthood in 2004. Miller pleaded guilty in 2003 to sexually abusing one of the plaintiffs in the Kentucky lawsuit and other children in the 1970s. He is serving a 13-year prison sentence.
In a transcription, Miller said he had offered to resign as early as 1962, but was instead moved from parish to parish.