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Vatican in fight to keep Pope out of dock

The Vatican, dragged deeper than ever into the clergy sex abuse scandal, is launching a legal defence that it hopes will shield the Pope from a US lawsuit seeking to have him answer questions under oath.

Court documents show Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the Pope has immunity as a 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 for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Roman 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, saying there are thousands of victims across the country.

"This case is the only case that has been 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. "There is no other defendant. There's no bishop, no priest."

But the Vatican is seeking to dismiss the suit before Benedict XVI can be questioned or documents subpoenaed.

The preview of the legal defence was submitted last month in US District Court in Louisville. 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 in failing to report abuse.

They say a 1962 Vatican document mandated that bishops did 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.


The US considers the Vatican a sovereign state -- the two have had diplomatic relations since 1984.

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 and set a bad precedent.

"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.