A legal battle centred on sex abuse ended in a victory for the Holy See, writes John Breslin in Chicago
AN EPIC legal battle that centred on sexual assault by a deceased Irish priest nearly half a century ago has ended with a major victory for the Vatican in its fight to avoid any legal responsibility for the sexual abuse of children.
In a landmark ruling ending a 10-year tussle, a federal judge in the US has said the Vatican was not the employer of Andrew Ronan, who was accused of, and according to Church documents admitted to, sexually assaulting children in Ireland, Chicago, and Oregon. It cannot therefore be held legally liable for the activities of Ronan, who was removed from Benburb in Co Tyrone following accusations of abuse, then shuffled between various dioceses in the US before finally being laicised.
The case was important not only because it was the first attempt made to hold the Vatican directly responsible for moving Ronan to different dioceses, where he continued to abuse children, but also because the Holy See was ordered by a court to hand over documents it held in its vaults, again a first.
Ultimately, after reviewing the documents and hearing arguments, US district court judge Michael Mosman ruled on Monday that the Vatican could not be regarded as the employer of Ronan, who died in 1992.
“There are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See,” Judge Mosman said in a ruling from the bench of the federal court in Portland, Oregon, where the suit by the now-60-year-old man, named John V Doe in court documents, was first filed in 2002.
He claimed to have been assaulted by Ronan in the early 1960s in Portland, after the priest, a member of the Servite Order, was moved there despite his superiors knowing of his activities in Benburb and in Chicago. He claimed that the Vatican was to blame as senior officials there knew of the case and ultimately controlled and employed Ronan.
Although saddened and disappointed by the ruling, there will be an appeal and “we expect to prevail”, John V Doe’s Minnesota lawyer, Jeff Anderson, said. Mr Anderson is the best-known of a number of lawyers acting on behalf of alleged victims of clerical abuse in the US and has now branched out with offices in London and Dublin.
In a statement, Mr Anderson said: “We believe that under further scrutiny the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy, and concealment practised by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States.
“Finally, it is with renewed vigour that we must, and will, carry on this fight for transparency and accountability on behalf of John V Doe and every single survivor of sexual abuse by a priest in this country and across the globe.”
The Vatican’s lead US lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, echoed the conclusion of the judge: “There is no fact in the record on which to base an employment relationship.”
This case went on for so long because of its unprecedented nature as different aspects were debated and ruled on by various courts, including whether the Vatican, as a supposed foreign sovereign government, could be subjected to any scrutiny in US courts.
That issue went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the Vatican’s appeal against a ruling that its actions could be scrutinised under exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
There was also a long-running dispute over whether the Vatican could be forced to hand over documents it held on Ronan. After a ruling by Judge Mosman last April, it did so in August, though the plaintiff’s lawyers described what was handed over as a “selective, deceptive, incomplete production at best”.
Nevertheless, some revealing information came from the Vatican and from other diocesan documents unearthed over the course of a decade of legal filings.
And it was clear Ronan was held in high regard by members of his order and he was even considered for a position at the Servite college in Rome, as was revealed in correspondence the Vatican handed over last year.
This was after he had been removed from Our Lady of Benburb College and sent to Chicago, where he was working at St Phillip’s boys’ school.
In a letter dated Jun 1963, the regional head in Chicago, Fr Louis Cortney, advised to the Servite’s Rome-based head, Alphonse Monta, against moving Ronan.
“I removed him from Benburb because of homosexuality with the students, which he freely admitted and confessed when the fact had been brought to the Prior by one of the students,” wrote Fr Cortney. “We lost vocations in Ireland as a result of this and we are most fortunate more scandal did not come.”
The letter continued: “While there has been no known recurrence of this problem, the experts in this perversion agree there is no permanent cure. I am expecting the worst any day here in St Phillip’s but much better that it occur here than in a seminary.”
However, Ronan went on to molest and abuse at least three boys at the school before being quietly moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was accused of attacking another youth, pinning him to the ground and attempting to anally rape him.
That youth was John V Doe.
Nowhere in any of the Church documents so far made public did anyone ask if the civil authorities should be notified.
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