The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati made a landmark decision last week by allowing a class-action lawsuit involving alleged sexual abuse by clergy against the Vatican to proceed. The lead attorney on the case, William F. McMurry, told The Wall Street Journal that “what the court has allowed us to do is proceed against the Vatican for the conduct of the U.S. bishops because of the bishops’ failure to report child abuse.”
Legally, sovereign states have immunity from most American civil proceedings and the Vatican has tried to block this case and others like it on this basis. In her ruling, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote that “The portions of plaintiffs’ claims that are based upon the conduct of bishops, archbishops and Holy See personnel while supervising allegedly abusive clergy satisfy all four requirements of the tortious act exception,” according to Agence France Presse.
The ruling allows the Vatican to be held liable for certain actions of church employees on the basis of their employment in the United States. In part, the ruling relied on a precedent set in the 9th Circuit court involving a Portland, Oregon sexual abuse case. A key piece of evidence in the case was a memo approved in 1962 by Pope John the 23rd that expressly directed bishops to treat cases of alleged abuse with strict secrecy, according to the AFP.
Barbara Blaine of The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said that the ruling in the case was a positive move forward: “Anytime the Vatican can be held accountable it helps victims heal and helps victims to be empowered.”