St. Petersburg, Fla. -- Decades after claiming they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests, two men have struck back with lawsuits against three American dioceses and their spiritual headquarters -- the Vatican itself.
In separate actions filed Wednesday in St. Petersburg and Portland, Ore., the men accused church leaders of conspiring to harbor child molesters and move them from parish to parish to avoid prosecution.
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson filed the civil lawsuits naming as defendants the Holy See, two religious orders, and the dioceses of Portland, Chicago and St. Petersburg.
It is the first time Anderson, who has represented plaintiffs in more than 400 lawsuits against church officials since the 1980s, has filed one against the Vatican.
"What this case shows is at least in some instances bishops have not been guilty of poor judgment or mistakes, but church leaders have been guilty of making deceitful choices,'' Anderson said.
No one has successfully sued the Vatican in a sex abuse lawsuit, although a few lawyers have tried, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest who co-authored a 1985 report to the U.S. bishops warning more must be done to stop abuse.
Doyle said he expects church lawyers will argue the Vatican is a country with diplomatic immunity and cannot be sued.
A phone message left for the Vatican ambassador to the United States was not returned. A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment.
In the St. Petersburg case, Rick Gomez, a 28-year-old computer software consultant from California, said he was abused by then-Salesian Brother William Burke when he was in the seventh grade at Mary Help of Christians School, a Tampa boarding school.
The Very Rev. James Heuser, vice provincial of the order, said Burke -- now a fully ordained priest -- is not in active ministry. He declined to say where Burke lives, but said he had contacted him and he did not want to comment.
Heuser said he had not read the lawsuit, but on behalf of the order released a written statement Wednesday apologizing for the sexual abuse of some of its members. The statement did not mention Burke.
"We are sorry for the sexual misconduct of some of our members, for the unspeakable violations of the young whom we have harmed rather than served,'' the statement said.
The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $15,000 and names the Holy See, the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and the Salesians of Don Bosco.
The St. Petersburg diocese responded Wednesday, saying it had no authority over the school or Burke and does not believe it should be named in the lawsuit.
Anderson said the abuse occurred in 1987 and was reported to authorities two years later. A sheriff's investigation ended without charges being filed when detectives couldn't find Burke to interview him, the sheriff's office said Wednesday.
The case in Portland was filed by an anonymous plaintiff against a now deceased priest. It seeks damages of more than $75,000 and names the Holy See, the Portland Archdiocese, the archbishop of Portland and the Order of the Friar Servants of Mary.
The Catholic bishop of Chicago also is named in the lawsuit because the priest had served at a parish in Chicago where he was reported to be molesting children, Anderson said. He said church officials then transferred the priest to Portland.
The lawsuit accuses the late Rev. Andrew Ronan of abusing a teen-age boy in late 1965 or early 1966. He left the priesthood in 1966 and died about 10 years ago, said Mary Jo Tully, a spokeswoman for the Portland Archdiocese.
Tully said the Portland archdiocese swiftly stripped Ronan of his right to function as a priest in 1966 after a sex-abuse complaint was lodged against him.
In a written statement released Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago said a preliminary review of their records did not reveal any "incident of misconduct'' involving Ronan.