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Ore. Suit Forces Vatican To Finally Open Records

SCOTT SIMON, host:

In Oregon, a federal judge has opened the door for priest sex abuse victims to sue the Vatican. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has the story.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Father Andrew Ronan admitted he abused boys. When his superiors found out, he was transferred from Ireland to Chicago and finally to Portland, Oregon. There, says attorney Jeffrey Anderson, he abused again.

Mr. JEFFREY ANDERSON (Attorney): He was clearly a serial predator that couldn't control himself. And in the final analysis the one that could control was the pope.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Anderson contends that Ronan, who died in 1992, was an employee of the Vatican, not just the religious order or diocese he served in, and that the Vatican can be sued.

It's a tough argument, since the Vatican is protected under sovereign immunity. But this week a federal judge ruled that Anderson has shown evidence there may be a direct tie between the Vatican and Ronan.

Mr. ANDERSON: And it is thus the Vatican and the pope that is making the decision to keep predator priests in ministry and has the ability to remove them.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's a leap, says Jeffrey Lena, an attorney for the Vatican. He says the Vatican knew nothing of Ronan's abuse, and once it found out, it defrocked him. He says the judge did not rule that Ronan was an employee of the Vatican.

Mr. JEFFREY LENA (Attorney): This was a priest of a religious order in the United States who simply had no employment relationship whatsoever with the Holy See. And if there's no employment relationship there is no case.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Charles Zech at Villanova University agrees. He says the dioceses and the religious orders are like franchises, and under the judge's ruling, the plaintiffs would have to show that the Vatican was, for example, directing Ronan's transfers around the world.

Professor CHARLES ZECH (Economics, Villanova University): They'd have to show the Vatican's fingerprints all over this.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Zech says that will be very difficult to do. And yet, he says, this ruling is a big deal.

Prof. ZECH: For the first time, the Vatican is being required to open its records. They've resisted that for years, and this is really precedent setting.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The Catholic Church is fighting this vigorously, because if the plaintiffs win this case, countless other alleged victims may themselves try to sue the Vatican directly.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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