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Pontifex Maximus Claims Head-of-State Immunity


I spent the last two weeks in Europe, where the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandals in Ireland and Germany were continuously grabbing headlines. Returning home, I see comparable stories being played out in the media here. Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken critic of the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, writes in a scathing piece at Slate that the pope must be held accountable through legal process:

This grisly little man is not above or outside the law. He is the titular head of a small state. We know more and more of the names of the children who were victims and of the pederasts who were his pets. This is a crime under any law (as well as a sin), and crime demands not sickly private ceremonies of “repentance,” or faux compensation by means of church-financed payoffs, but justice and punishment. The secular authorities have been feeble for too long but now some lawyers and prosecutors are starting to bestir themselves. I know some serious men of law who are discussing what to do if Benedict tries to make his proposed visit to Britain in the fall. It’s enough. There has to be a reckoning, and it should start now.

Pushback comes from figures like New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who used a recent homily to compare the criticism now raining down on the Bavarian pope to the “the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar” suffered by Jesus Christ. (Can a cardinal’s hat be far away for Archbishop Dolan?)

But other efforts to establish the Holy See’s civil liability for child abuse by priests are already underway. I’m fascinated by this story about how the Holy See plans to battle claims in a legal proceeding in Kentucky. A lawsuit has been brought by three individuals who claim they were abused by a priest. They are trying to bring the Vatican directly into the suit, claiming it is liable by virtue of failure of supervision (under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior). The Associated Press, stating it has obtained legal documents prepared by the Catholic Church, unfolds the Vatican’s strategy:

Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren’t 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 U.S. 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 Roman Catholic priests who molested children.

Since the risorgimento, the Catholic Church has maneuvered to secure the position of its Rome-based hierarchy as a nation-state, with the pontiff as head of state. The position is at least somewhat problematic, although the Vatican does have the essentials of a population, territory, and recognition by some states. The current litigation points to the advantages of this posture. An American court would naturally turn to the Department of State for a view as to whether the pontiff is entitled to this sort of protection in the face of a civil lawsuit.

The second claim, that the American bishops were not accountable to the Vatican under respondeat superior, strikes me as far more doubtful as a matter of canon and civil law. But I can imagine that a U.S. court will be unenthusiastic about wading into such a thicket.

The legal strategy seems to me to be a fairly obvious one. The litigation will be testing some intriguing issues. But I can’t imagine that any of these arguments will make for good PR for the church, which is under heavy attack around the world for putting its own reputation ahead of accountability for those responsible for criminal wrongdoing.

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