Sex abuse ruling in Los Angeles doesn't affect Vatican, attorney says

ROME -- Refusal by a federal judge in Los Angeles to dismiss a sex abuse case against the Catholic church both in the United States and Mexico, under a law that allows American courts to consider foreign claims, has no implications for efforts to sue the Vatican, the lawyer who represents the Vatican in U.S. litigation said today.

Unlike other church entities, attorney Jeffrey Lena said, the Vatican is a sovereign state, so its potential liability is limited by a special federal law.

On the other hand, Lena said, the Los Angeles case eventually could have implications for other Catholic institutions, such as dioceses and religious orders, if the “Alien Tort Claims Act” of 1789 were to be recognized as a basis to bring suits for abuse that took place outside the United States, even if neither the victim nor the abuser are American citizens.

Lena spoke to NCR in Rome.

On Monday, a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles, Josephine S. Tucker, turned down a motion to dismiss a sex abuse case brought by a Mexican man who claims he was abused by a priest who moved between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Mexico.

According to court documents, the priest, Nicholas Aguilar Rivera, is accused of sexually abusing as many as 60 children, including 26 in Los Angeles, in the late 1980s. He was laicized, meaning formally removed from the priesthood, in 2009.

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The lawsuit is believed to be the first time a sex abuse suit against the Catholic church has been allowed to proceed under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The suit asserts that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and the bishop of the Mexican diocese of Tehuacán protected the priest and helped him avoid authorities. The Tehuacán bishop at the time, Norberto Rivera, is now the cardinal of Mexico City.

Lawyers for the Los Angeles archdiocese sought dismissal on the grounds that a U.S. court lacked jurisdiction since the alleged abuse took place in Mexico and both the plaintiff and the accused priest are Mexican citizens. Two previous lawsuits in American courts for abuse that occurred in Mexico have been dismissed.

Lawyers for the Los Angeles archdiocese say the suit lacks merit and will eventually be dismissed.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represents the alleged victim, called Monday’s ruling “huge,” saying it opens “a door that has never been opened before.”

At first blush, some observers may wonder if the ruling could pave the way for what plaintiffs lawyers and victims’ advocates have long regarded as the ultimate prize – suing the Vatican.
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Lena, a California-based lawyer who defends the Vatican in American courts, said it doesn’t have any such effect. The Vatican’s potential liability is governed exclusively by the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act,” he said, a federal statute which sets out the conditions under which a sovereign state may be sued.

“The only way you can obtain jurisdiction over the Holy See is through the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act,” Lena said. “The fact that a claim may proceed against another entity under the Alien Tort Claims Act is irrelevant.”

“The Alien Tort Claims Act is not going to become a basis” for suing the Vatican, Lena said.

At the moment, there are four sex abuse lawsuits in the United States which name the Vatican as a defendant, though only one so far has been successfully served and in presently before a court. That’s the case of Doe v. Holy See in Oregon, in which a federal judge is currently weighing requests by lawyers for the victim to demand documents from the Vatican and to depose senior personnel, including the pope himself as well as the current and former Secretaries of State.

There are two other lawsuits unrelated to sexual abuse in which the Vatican is a defendant also pending in American courts, Lena said, one related to a commercial dispute and the other to an insurance scam.

None of those cases, Lena said, will be affected by Monday’s ruling.

Though cautioning that a refusal to dismiss is a very preliminary step in a legal proceeding, Lena said the case in Los Angeles bears watching, if it is eventually determined that sexual abuse is an offense for which foreign entities that aren’t sovereign states can be held liable under the Alien Tort Claims Act.


John Allen is in Rome for the next week. Check back to NCRonline.org frequently for more reports and exclusive coverage.

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