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Ruling in clergy abuse case may shield Vatican

US judge decides Holy See is not priests’ employer

“While we’re disappointed, of course, we’re not discouraged,” said lawyer Jeff Anderson.

Craig Lassig/Associated Press

“While we’re disappointed, of course, we’re not discouraged,” said lawyer Jeff Anderson.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Vatican won a major victory Monday in an Oregon federal courtroom, where a judge ruled that the Holy See is not the employer of molester priests.

The decision by US District Court Judge Michael Mosman ends a six-year dispute in the decade-old case and could shield the Vatican from possible monetary damages.

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The original lawsuit was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said the Rev. Andrew Ronan repeatedly molested him in the late 1960s.

The plaintiffs tried to show that Ronan and all priests are employees of the Vatican, which is therefore liable for their actions.

Mosman made a previous decision strictly on legal theory and determined that, if all the factual assertions made by the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case were true and applicable, then the Vatican would indeed employ Ronan.

But on Monday, Mosman said he looked at the facts in the case and didn’t find an employer-employee relationship.

‘‘There are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See,’’ Mosman said in his ruling from the bench.

APPEAL EXPECTED

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Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota-based lawyer for the plaintiff, said he will appeal the decision. ‘‘While we’re disappointed, of course, we’re not discouraged,’’ Anderson said.

Vatican attorney Jeff Lena declined to comment.

The case is the last major US sex abuse lawsuit against the Holy See. Cases in Kentucky and Wisconsin have been dropped in recent years.

The plaintiffs argued that Ronan’s fealty to the pope, the Vatican’s ability to promote priests, the Vatican’s laicization — or removal — process, and the ability to change priests’ training all pointed to the Vatican employing priests.

‘‘We believe that under further scrutiny,’’ Anderson said in a news release, ‘‘the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy and concealment practiced by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States.’’

The impact of Mosman’s ruling on other priest sex-abuse cases is not yet clear. The case has gone further than any other in attempting to get at the relationship between priests in the United States and the Vatican.

The Vatican has long maintained that its status as a foreign country exempts it from being sued in a US court.

However, in 2010, the US Supreme Court refused to block the Oregon lawsuit against the Vatican. Without comment, the justices declined the Vatican’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that the Holy See could be sued in a US court on certain grounds despite its claim of sovereign immunity.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, said lawsuits against the pope are usually dismissed by lower courts on immunity grounds, with judges ruling that the Vatican can’t be sued because there is no jurisdiction in the United States to do so.

‘‘This was likely filed more to make a political statement,’’ Laycock said of the Oregon case.

Mosman took up several hypothetical analogies while questioning attorneys for both sides.

He said that, for instance, the Oregon legal bar has many of the same powers over lawyers as the Vatican has over priests: It can disbar someone and issue sanctions, just as the Vatican can laicize priests, but doing so doesn’t constitute a firing.

The plaintiffs were trying to show that, by exerting control, the Vatican was the priests’ employer.

Mosman said that if he accepted the plaintiff’s argument that the Vatican maintains absolute control over all priests, and is therefore their employer, then all Catholics everywhere could similarly be considered employees of the Holy See.

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