Sixth Circuit allows clergy sex abuse class action against Vatican to proceed

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] on Monday affirmed [opinion, PDF] a lower court decision denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit alleging that officials of the Roman Catholic Church failed to warn the public of sexual abuse of children by priests. The plaintiffs, who claim to be victims of clergy sexual abuse [JURIST news archive], filed a class action suit in 2004 against the Holy See [official website]. The Vatican appealed the partial denial of summary judgment by the US District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the Vatican is immune from suit as a foreign state pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) [28 U.S.C. § 1602 et seq text]. Plaintiffs also appealed the partial grant of summary judgment, claiming that the FSIA does not immunize the Holy See from suit. On appeal, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote:

[I]f plaintiffs believe that the Holy See acted in a private capacity, then the plaintiffs are limited to arguing that an exception to the FSIA applies; such claims cannot serve as reasons to avoid the FSIA altogether. The exceptions to FSIA capture all instances where Congress has deemed conduct, if pursued by a foreign sovereign, sufficiently private so as to eliminate foreign sovereign immunity. In turn, the alternative capacity argument can only succeed to the extent that it identifies conduct that fits within one of the exceptions outlined under FSIA.
The plaintiffs' claims for violation of customary international law of human rights, negligence, and breach of fiduciary duty survive, but the other claims, which were not based on deceit or misrepresentation, are barred. The attorney for the plaintiffs expects [AP report] the case to be appealed to US Supreme Court.

This case is one of many stemming from allegations of sexual abuse by priests in US Catholic Dioceses. In August the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence [diocesan website] reached a settlement [JURIST report] in four abuse suits. In September 2007, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh [diocesan website] announced [JURIST report] the creation of a $1.25 million fund and the Catholic Diocese of San Diego [diocesan website] announced an agreement [JURIST report] to pay $198.1 million to settle claims of sexual abuse by their clergy. A Los Angeles Superior Court in July 2007 approved a $660 million settlement [JURIST report] between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles [diocesan website] and plaintiffs in 508 outstanding clergy sex abuse lawsuits. In January 2007, the Catholic Diocese of Spokane [diocesan website] agreed to settle molestation claims [JURIST report] against its own priests for $48 million as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan.


 

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