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Kentucky lawsuit forces US court to ask: are bishops 'employees' of Vatican?

Catholic World News - May 18, 2010

A lawsuit brought by sex-abuse victims is forcing a US federal court to examine a complex theological issue: the nature and scope of a Roman Pontiff's authority over individual diocesan bishops.

In order to include Pope Benedict as a defendant in the case, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that bishops who covered up evidence of sexual abuse-- in this case, the Archbishop of Louisville-- was acting as an agent of the Holy See.

William McMurry, the lawyer representing abuse victims, contends that it is evident the bishops work as employees of the Holy See, since the Pope has the power to appoint bishops, establish dioceses, and set universal Church policies. But the nature of authority in the Church, and the collegial exercise of apostolic power, do not fit so neatly into the ordinary models of corporate governance.

In an AP analysis of the case, two canon lawyers, Nicholas Cafardi and Edward Peters, note that civil courts have never previously attempted to resolve questions about papal and episcopal authority. Cafardi notes, too, that the identification of bishops as "employees" of the Vatican entails "a complete rewriting of Catholic theology."

The case has other implications for the Church. If bishops who are American citizens are classified as agents of the Vatican-- which is a sovereign international body-- then the case would lend strength to the old anti-Catholic claim that American Catholics may be regarded as subjects of a foreign power.

Even if the plaintiffs succeed in persuading the court to allow including the Holy See as a defendant, they still have the burden of demonstrating that the Vatican orchestrated a worldwide policy of protecting abusive priests from civil prosecution-- a contention that the attorney representing the Vatican in the Kentucky case has summarily rejected.

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  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - May. 19, 2010 12:51 PM ET USA

    Does anyone who supports the Catholic Church in the spate of endless abuse lawsuits have any idea where this is all heading? If exposure and prosecution of the guilty and proportionate monetary compensation were the only goals of the litigants, it would be a simple matter to resolve all of them. But if the destruction of the Catholic Church as a functioning participant in American society is the true goal, then the Church's enemies are well on their way to accomplishing their goal.

  • Posted by: tim.moore1408 - May. 18, 2010 7:11 PM ET USA

    A whole lot of law that we have was "novel" at one point. This one will be interesting to watch.

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