In Vatican lawsuits, who’s really the little guy?

Nat’l Catholic Reporter:

In Vatican lawsuits, who’s really the little guy?

. . .

In search of an answer, I spent Tuesday of this week with Berkeley native son Jeffrey Lena, the principal architect of the Vatican’s legal strategy, and here’s what I discovered: Understanding the Berkeley connection depends in part on answering the question, “Who’s really the little guy?”

. . .

For most Americans, these cases probably seem analogous to legal fights against Big Tobacco: The victims represent the “little guy,” struggling for justice against the institutional behemoth of the Holy See. The natural temptation is to cheer for the victims, and to see the Vatican’s assertion of immunity as yet another index of its arrogance.
Lena, however, says there’s another way to look at things.

What if we cast the Holy See, by consensus the smallest sovereign state on earth, as the “little guy” in these cases, defending the rights of all small states not to be pushed around by the court system of the world’s biggest superpower? In other words, what if we shift the context from the sex abuse crisis to equality in international relations?
For Lena, who did graduate work in history at UC-Berkeley, a framework based on concerns over the modern projection of American power around the world – which, he says, can at times border on hegemony – seems right on the money.

Understandably, Lena is reluctant to talk much about his own vision of these cases – his job, after all, is to represent his client. Moreover, Lena insists that he is determined to fight these claims because of the Vatican’s “factual innocence.” He says it’s just not true that decisions about transferring abuser priests or concealing their crimes were made in Rome, as these lawsuits generally allege. Lena insists that Vatican officials often never even knew these priests existed until they were being dismissed from the clerical state (usually long after the abuse had occurred), or their names popped up in the press.

Interesting point – one that seems obvious now that I’ve read the article.

As a lawyer, my initial question is this: Is the Vatican state being sued? From what little I have read, the action is against the Church or members of the hierarchy, not the Vatican state.

The National ‘Catholic’ Reporter was not the best source, either.

The concept of superpowers being able to bully smaller sovereignties is a valid concept, but in the end is nice theory that totally misses the point of what is going on in this particular case.

The “little guy” in this is the innocent victim who had his or her innocence stolen by, first the bigger and more powerful priest, and then by the bigger and more powerful Church’s policies that have made it extremely difficult to seek justice.

When I speak of justice, I am not talking about milking the Vatican for money. I am talking about the biggest complaint of victims: that the Church continues to hide behind legal maneuvers rather than to allow the truth to be known about how its negligence, whether wilfull or unintentional, allowed these tragedies to happen. This shouldn’t come down to matters of whether U.S. courts can subpoena another sovereign head of state. The Church should be seeking to make the truth known, even if that truth requires great humility and repentance on their part.

It could well be that there was no specific policy of silence or any group of individuals that was trying to protect the reputation of the Church at the expense of the victims. But the continual reliance on “legalities” to prevent that truth from coming out gives ever-greater credence to the idea that there is something to hide.

Any thought of using maneuvering like this to portray the Vatican as the “little guy” in these circumstances is just more of the same old claim of the Church being “persecuted” because people have the audacity to question how it could allow such attrocities. It’s just another deflection, hanging the true victims back up on the cross again as they watch their very valid concerns being shoved aside in the name of self-protection.

This whole abuse scandal can be ended by the hierarchy coming clean on the facts, getting out the checkbook, and providing adequate compensation to victims. Some will say money won’t heal victims. That may or may not be true, but that is how things are done now. The claims could be settled much more reasonably voluntarily than in the shadow of the courthouse with a jury waiting in the wings. Once the lawyers have a diocese on the trial calendar they smell blood. There are a billion Catholics in the world, the Church is not a “little guy.”

What do you consider to be adequate compensation? Can you put a price on sex abuse? I can’t and I won’t because their is no price.

A large portion of that money goes to the lawyers. Is that how you solve the problem, by giving the lawyers as much money as they want? Keep in mind many of these lawyers are interested in getting as much money as they can because the more money they can get for their client the more money they get for themselves. The absolute best way to solve this is for the priest to end up in jail where they can pay their debt to society. No, money will NOT heal the victims, it will not absolve these priest of their crime. Money is actually a VERY poor substitute for what is really needed. Just because it may be done doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it. What is needed is REAL justice. In a case like this money can not bring real justice.

Ooh, ooh, ooh! It’s time for a song number!

*You say you haven’t been the same since you had your little crash
But you might feel better if I gave you some cash
The more I think about it, old billy was right
Let’s kill all the lawyers, kill ’em tonight
You don’t want to work, you want to live like a king
But the big, bad world doesn’t owe you a thing

Get Over It, by The Eagles

IANAL but my understanding is that there are suits underway directly vs. the Vatican but what has already occurred have been attempts to subpoena Vatican officials or documents – subject them to US law.
The plaintiff’s lawyers are in effect portraying the Holy See as corporate HQ of RC Global, Unltd & every Bishop and priest as an employee.
Obama’s SG has actually supported the Holy See so far.

Even though he works for the bad NCR John Allen is a very good, objective reporter.

I absolutely agree with a lot of what you are saying.
But when you are being sued you have to defend yourself legally.
If the Vatican were to open its files (or all that it could – many documents are confidential) the plaintiff’s attorneys would just say, “Thank you very much,” and double their demands.

Last, legal precedents take on lives of their own. If the US is allowed to coerce the Vatican today (even in a good cause) we have no way of knowing how that principle will be applied in future.

The problem is here that the only reason the whole lawsuit thing began was because of the way the Church stonewalled the victims and revictimized them by marginalizing them and blowing off their claims rather than doing the right thing by them. By doing so, if there was in fact bad faith and a policy to protect the Church at the expense of the victims, they have now opened themselves up to the potential for punitive damages by continuing the coverup (if it exists or existed).

I do understand that the way “the world” deals with such things is to work in the world. But we are talking about the representative of God on earth, whose sole mission is to protect His flock and bring them safely home to Him. We are called to a much higher standard, to be in the world but not of the world and to trust in Him and His mercy.

If the Church did indeed actively act against the interests of those most vulnerable of victims it is time to accept with humble repentance what that involves and trust in God’s mercy as to how His Church continues. The victims in this cannot continue to be victimized by policies of denial and deflection.

Last, legal precedents take on lives of their own. If the US is allowed to coerce the Vatican today (even in a good cause) we have no way of knowing how that principle will be applied in future.

Agreed and I have great misgivings about the way this might play out. To me, if it is to be a legal issue it should come from a World Court where the entire community of nations is expressing concern about the actions rather than some individual state potentially pitting itself against another.

Ultimately though I would prefer to see the Church rise above all of that and rise above the legalities to just do the right thing voluntarily because it is the right thing and what is needed to bring justice and some sense of peace to the victims. If they want to try to use the legalities to shield their assets, so be it, and it may well be that the same laws that prevent their being subpoenaed would allow them to do that. But the time for the Church to be painting itself as the victim in all of this is long past.


I am saying get these claims settled before the lawyers get involved. Every insurance company knows that quick claims settlement is imperative to protect the bottom line. (I also know about “green poultices.”) The bottom line is that people want money and will often settle for small amounts up front before litigation begins. Once lawyers get heavily involved with time and money the demand skyrockets, which leads to financial shakedowns given that with current public opinion it is extremely dangerous to let these cases go to juriesl

That appears to be the attitude of the US Bishops:

NCR, John Allen:

Differing Roman and American sensibilities have long been part of the drama of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, and perhaps nowhere is that divergence more glaring than in the diametrically opposed strategies the two parties have embraced when slapped with civil lawsuits in American courts.

If litigation is a kind of war, the guiding philosophy of the U.S. bishops over the last decade has amounted to “Peace now!” – meaning, in practice, settling claims as quickly as possible. The Vatican’s approach over the same span has been more akin to “No retreat, no surrender.”

Vatican lawyers were at it again this week, petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court June 1 to overturn a lower court ruling allowing a lawsuit to proceed in Oregon. The request builds on a recent brief by the Obama administration endorsing the view that sovereign immunity ought to shield the Vatican in the Oregon case, titled Doe v. Holy See. The brief, signed by officials of the Office of the Solicitor General, the attorney general and the State Department, argued that even if a priest could be construed as a Vatican “employee,” federal law on suing foreign countries would require that the abuse be part of his official job description – which it obviously isn’t.

I suspect that the Vatican may be dragging its feet because many in power are carry-overs who were in charge of the relevant Congregations in the 80s so they’re covering their, uh, birettas. and also for fear of blackening Pope John Paul II’s name. True, he was beginning to fail by the time the extent of the crisis became clear but he had appointed many of the Bishops involved and basically it happened on his watch.

Zenit published a very provocative article a couple days ago. Excerpts:

"Another factor was the Catholic Church’s culture of forgiveness which tends to view things in terms of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment. But in the case of clerical abuse of the young, we are dealing with crime, and the Church has struggled to find the point of convergence between sin and forgiveness on the one hand and crime and punishment on the other.

"True, sin must be forgiven, but so too must crime be punished. Both mercy and justice must run their course, and do so in a way that converges.

Such mistakes about Christian reconciliation are not simply a matter of misunderstandings, but come from a lack of real love and compassion for those who are suffering or who have been victimized, or from a lack of appreciation of what is really happening in serious conflicts. The pursuit of an illusory neutrality in every conflict is ultimately a way of siding with the oppressor. This is not the reconciliation and forgiveness that Jesus taught through his life and ministry.

In the conflict between Pharisees and the so-called “sinners,” Jesus sided with the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors against the Pharisees. And in the conflict between the rich and the poor, he sided with the poor. Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the rich in no uncertain terms, and he forgives the sinners and blesses the poor. Jesus makes no attempt to compromise with the authorities for the sake of a false peace of reconciliation or unity. The reconciliation, peace and forgiveness that God wants are based on truth, justice and love.

That was a really great article, Sirach2, and really summed up the problem the Church has been dealing with here. The other paragraph that really jumped out at me was this:

Second, neutrality is not always possible, and in cases of conflict due to injustice and oppression neutrality is totally impossible. If we do not take sides with the oppressed, then we end up taking sides with the oppressor. “Bringing the two sides together” in such cases can end up being beneficial to the oppressor, because it enables the status quo to be maintained; it hides the true nature of the conflict, keeps the oppressed quiet and passive and it brings about a kind of false reconciliation without justice. The injustice continues and everybody is made to feel that the injustice does not matter because the tension and conflict have been reduced.

The Church, and many of those who scream about the Church being “persecuted” in all of this, seem to be following that idea that if we can just bring the sides together and reduce the tension everything will be alright and it will all go away.

What seems to get missed though is the first two sentences: “Second, neutrality is not always possible, and in cases of conflict due to injustice and oppression neutrality is totally impossible. If we do not take sides with the oppressed, then we end up taking sides with the oppressor.” THAT is what so angers the victims and keeps them cowering in the shadows. The “justice” end of things, which can only come when the truth comes out and true, sincere repentance occurs has been conspicuously absent. Yes, forgiveness has been asked and settlements have been made to “bring the sides together”, that appears to be just a way to make this all go away. The victims, however, are far too aware that the prevailing attitude is that “…the injustice does not matter because the tension and conflict have been reduced.”

“If we do not take sides with the oppressed, then we end up taking sides with the oppressor.” As much as I love my Church, I cannot stand with her on this until she truly does what needs to be done in seeking justice. That requires that those who allowed it all to go on must acknowledge that and submit to whatever justice requires. Punishing the priests without punishing those who enabled the continuation of the horror just won’t get the job done for the enablers are just as guilty by aiding and abetting. For the Church to not demand that this justice be done is to stand with those who were the oppressors rather than the the victims. Zero tolerance isn’t zero tolerance unless it applies to everyone who was involved, be it simple priest or mighty bishop.


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