Three men who claim they were sexually abused by priests in their childhood can pursue damages from the Vatican, US District Judge John G. Heyburn II ruled Thursday.
William McMurry, the plaintiffs' attorney, won a $25.7 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Louisville in June 2003. A year later, he launched a new federal suit against the Vatican, saying that "financial responsibility should be shared, if not borne entirely, by the Vatican."
Bill Donahue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, stated that accusing the Vatican of implication in US priests' sex abuse crimes is "bogus." He cited victims' attorney Roderick MacLeish, Jr. "I have reviewed thousands of pages of documents surrendered by the Archdiocese of Boston, but haven't seen a scintilla of evidence that the Vatican knew what was going on."
Judge Heyburn's decision to allow the suit to proceed against the Vatican is a reversal of his October 7, 2005 ruling that the Holy See is immune from the jurisdiction of US courts under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.
One of the current plaintiffs, Michael Turner, had his case resolved in the 2003 settlement. Fr. Louis E. Miller pleaded guilty in that case to having sexually abused Turner and other children in the 1970s. Miller was removed from the priesthood the following year by Pope John Paul II. He is now serving a 13-year prison sentence.
The other two plaintiffs, James H. O'Bryan and Donald E. Poppe, both California residents who grew up in Louisville, have never settled their claims in court. Both their claims are much older than Turner's.
O'Bryan claims that in 1928 he was fondled by a "Fr. Lawrence" while volunteering in the school library. According to an Archdiocesan spokesperson, a Fr. Lawrence Kuntz worked at O'Bryan's parish from 1928-1935, and died in 1952.
Poppe alleges he was molested as a child by a Fr. Arthur Wood, who died in 1983 and was named as a molester by 39 other plaintiffs who settled in 2003.
Donahue alleges that what motivated McMurry to bring this suit against the Vatican is a certain 1962 Vatican document, leaked to the press, that McMurry contends reveals "how the Vatican planned to cover up cases of sexual abuse."
"But the document, as we've pointed out many times before, not only does not implicate the Vatican — it proves how serious it took cases of alleged abuse," said Donahue. "For example, it prescribed penalties for any priest who ‘whether by words or signs or nods of the head' might convey a sexual advance in the confessional. It also prescribed penalties for the penitent if he or she didn't report such conduct. In other words, the 1962 document is a model of excellence."
Donahue also mentioned that out of the $25.7 million Archdiocesan settlement, "McMurry managed to cream $10.3 million off the top for himself and his legal team."
Despite ruling to allow the suit to proceed, Judge Heyburn dismissed McMurry's allegations of Vatican negligence in ‘failing to protect' children entrusted to the clergy. He also rejected claims of deceit and misrepresentation by the Holy See.
Jeffrey Lena, a California-based Vatican attorney, believes the ruling could prove favorable to the Holy See because the remaining allegations rest on the unproved assumption that US bishops are agents of the Vatican. He predicted that as the case proceeds this claim too will not be found to hold water.
In addition to his settlement with the Archdiocese and his ongoing suit against the Vatican, McMurry has also brought suit against the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth on charges of sex abuse crimes, settling with them for $1.5 million in August 2006.