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Lawsuits allege Vatican concealed sexual abuse

July 11, 2004

Leading advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse are directing their criticism beyond U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to the highest levels of the church. They're now accusing Vatican leaders of hiding the scope of the molestation problem worldwide -- and demanding reform.

Another sex abuse lawsuit was filed last month naming the Vatican as a defendant -- this time in Kentucky. Separately, Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy abuse lawsuits, has filed two others that target officials in Rome.

Many church experts say complaints of a Rome cover-up are baseless, meant only to gain advantage in the hundreds of still-pending abuse cases against U.S. dioceses. Millions of dollars in potential settlements are at stake.

But advocates say the revelations that many American bishops sheltered offenders in their own dioceses are just one small part of what they call long-term, systemic wrongdoing.

"The Vatican has been vitally involved," said Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former monk who researches sexuality in the priesthood and advises people suing dioceses. "The Vatican is in the know and has documented its knowledge throughout the centuries."

Sipe, the Rev. Thomas Doyle and former monk Patrick Wall -- all well-known victim advocates -- have compiled a more than 300-page document claiming Vatican officials have known about sex abuse by priests going all the way back to the fourth century and have consistently kept quiet about it.

"It is a calculated cover-up of epic proportions," the authors wrote.

Jason Berry, whose reporting in the 1980s first drew national attention to clergy sex abuse, published a book this year entitled, Vows of Silence, The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II.

Co-authored with Gerald Renner, it contends Vatican leaders blocked an inquiry into sex abuse claims against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the prominent founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order strongly favored by Pope John Paul II. Maciel says he's innocent.

No one has ever successfully sued the Vatican over molestation, and some legal experts have dismissed such lawsuits as publicity stunts. The Vatican is a sovereign nation and, therefore, considered to have diplomatic immunity from lawsuits.

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the Vatican, said it was unfair to call the entire church hierarchy out of touch -- or say the Vatican is legally liable for priests who victimized children.

Reese said it was true that some Vatican leaders had been slower to react to the problem than U.S. bishops, who spent years convincing officials in Rome that offenders should be removed from the priesthood more quickly -- even as some prelates kept abusers in ministry. Local bishops -- not Vatican leaders -- supervise diocesan priests.

"The Vatican has got lots of canon lawyers who are concerned about proper procedures and due process and being considered innocent until proven guilty," Reese said. And sometimes that's seen as stonewalling when it's simply trying to make sure everyone's rights are protected. It's complicated."

Berry and Renner say there is a need for an independent church court system.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's orthodoxy watchdog, vets all abuse claims against priests worldwide. Bishops arrange church trials for accused priests, and bishops answer only to the pope, the advocates note.

"There is no internal mechanism of accountability," Berry said. "There is no separation of powers, and the Vatican will not allow lay people to have any say in removing bishops."

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, president of Ignatius Press and chancellor of Ave Maria University in Florida, said the global church already has the necessary tools to deal with the crisis: its teachings on sexuality.

He is among many conservative Catholics who believe the scandal wouldn't have occurred if Vatican officials and U.S. bishops had properly enforced church beliefs.

"The reform that's needed is not of structures," Fessio said. "It's a needed reform of the human heart."


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests