Louisville, Kentucky - Three men who sought to hold the Vatican liable in an American court for sexual abuses by Roman Catholic priests in a Kentucky diocese are abandoning the case.
Lawyers looked to question Pope Benedict XVI under oath but had to leap the high legal hurdle of the Vatican's sovereign immunity status in the U.S. But plaintiffs filed a motion on Monday asking a federal judge in Louisville to dismiss their claims.
Their attorney, William McMurry, said he was seeking to end the case because of an earlier court ruling that recognized the Vatican's immunity and failure to turn up new plaintiffs to add to the lawsuit who haven't yet been involved in a Catholic clergy abuse case.
"Virtually every child who was abused and will come forward as an adult has come forward and sued a bishop and collected money, and once that happens, it's over," McMurry told The Associated Press. McMurry represented more than 240 abuse victims who settled with the Louisville Catholic archdiocese for $25 million in 2003.
The lawsuit was considered the first in the U.S. to make it to the stage of determining whether victims had a negligence claim against the Vatican, which argued the plaintiffs never showed a connection between Rome and the American clergy abuse scandal.
Filed in 2004 by the three men abused by priests in the Louisville diocese, it argues in part that U.S. bishops should be considered employees or officials of the Holy See.
The case was being closely watched as the clerical abuse scandal swirls around the Holy See. Lawsuits naming top Vatican officials were also filed recently in Wisconsin and another one in Oregon. Both are making their way through the federal courts and it wasn't immediately clear if dropping the Louisville lawsuit would affect them.
An attorney for the Vatican, which is referred to in the lawsuit as the Holy See, said the Kentucky lawsuit lacked merit.
"This development confirms that, contrary to what the plaintiffs' lawyers repeatedly told the media, there has never been a Holy See policy requiring concealment of child sexual abuse," attorney Jeffrey Lena said in a statement. "The theory crafted by the plaintiffs' lawyers six years ago misled the American public."
"That the case against the Holy See always lacked merit does not mean that the plaintiffs themselves did not suffer as a result of sexual abuse," Lena said. "But bringing this case only distracted from the important goal of protecting children from harm."
The judge must still rule on whether the case can be dismissed, but attorneys on both sides say it has virtually ended.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See in the Oregon lawsuit that was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said a priest molested him in the late 1960s. Attorneys there are also arguing that priests are Vatican employees for the purpose of American law.
The Wisconsin lawsuit claims top leaders at the Vatican knew about allegations of sexual abuse at St. John's School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee and called off internal punishment of the accused priest, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy.
McMurry wrote in the Kentucky dismissal motion that an earlier court ruling that recognized the Vatican's immunity allowed the plaintiffs to proceed on the narrow argument that U.S. bishops are officials or employees of the Holy See.
McMurry said because of the court's determination, "the grant of jurisdiction was so narrow that it's meaningless."
The Vatican has argued that its U.S. bishops act independently, control their own budgets and are not employees of the Holy See.
McMurry said one of the plaintiffs, Michael J. Turner, was involved in the 2003 settlement against the Louisville archdiocese, which voided his ability to seek a claim from the Vatican. Two other plaintiffs, James O'Bryan and Donald Poppe, alleged abuses that occurred several decades ago.
"In both cases the bishops in question are deceased and further discovery regarding the bishops' actions is believed to be impossible," the motion said.
McMurry said a months-long search for new victims who haven't settled in a clergy abuse case failed to find any willing to come forward.
"No one who has not sued a bishop is in a position to help us despite our best efforts over the past several months," McMurry said.
Associated Press Writer Teresa Wasson contributed to this report.