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U.S. Asks Court to Dismiss Abuse Suit That Names Pope

September 21, 2005

The Justice Department has told a Texas court that a lawsuit accusing Pope Benedict XVI of conspiring to cover up the sexual molestation of three boys by a seminarian should be dismissed because the pontiff enjoys immunity as head of state of the Holy See.

In a filing on Monday, Peter Keisler, an assistant United States attorney, said that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would be "incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests."

There was no immediate ruling from Judge Lee Rosenthal of the Federal District Court in Houston. But American courts have been bound by such "suggestion of immunity" motions submitted by the government, Mr. Keisler's filing says.

A 1994 lawsuit against Pope John Paul II, also filed in Texas, was dismissed after the federal government filed a motion similar to the one filed by Mr. Keisler.

Mr. Keisler's motion had been expected, because the Vatican Embassy in Washington had asked the United States government to issue the immunity suggestion and do everything it could to have the case dismissed.

The pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit by three plaintiffs who say that Juan Carlos Patino-Arango, a Colombian-born seminarian on assignment at St. Francis de Sales church in Houston, molested them during counseling sessions in the church in the mid-1990's.

Mr. Patino-Arango has been indicted in a criminal case by a grand jury in Harris County, Tex., and is currently a fugitive.

The lawsuit says the pope, who as Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, was involved in a conspiracy to hide Mr. Patino-Arango's crimes and help him escape prosecution. The lawsuit cites a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, dated May 18, 2001, and written in Latin to bishops around the world, explaining that "grave" crimes like the sexual abuse of minors would be handled by his congregation and that the proceedings of special church tribunals handling the cases were subject to "pontifical secret."

Daniel Shea, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, has said such secret proceedings amounted to a conspiracy to cover up the crimes.

The Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have said that the secret church procedures in the sexual abuse case were not designed to cover up abuse or to prevent victims from reporting crimes to law enforcement authorities.

The document deals with church law, not keeping secrets from secular authorities, the Vatican and the conference say.

The pope's lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, said yesterday that it was appropriate that the Justice Department determined that the pope was "the sitting head of state of the Holy See."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Lena said the motion would now be considered by the Texas court.

Many lawsuits stemming from the church sexual abuse cases have named the pope, the Vatican and high-ranking church officials, but they have failed because the officials could not be served with the papers.

Cardinal Ratzinger, however, was served with legal papers.

Mr. Shea said yesterday that he would challenge the constitutionality of the diplomatic recognition of the Holy See on the grounds that it goes against the First Amendment clause barring laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

Mr. Shea said that in trying to have the case dismissed, the pope's lawyers had admitted in court papers that the Holy See was a church.

A May 26 motion to dismiss the suit, citing the First Amendment, said the case should be thrown out because it would "invite court intrusion into the internal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church."

Officials at the United States Embassy to the Holy See said they were familiar with the case but had no comment.

The Vatican also declined to comment.

Besides the pope, the lawsuit names as defendants Mr. Patino-Arango, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza and the Rev. William Pickhard, Mr. Patino-Arango's vocational director.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests