The Vatican can be sued for damages connected to clergy abuse allegations, a federal appeals court has ruled in a case argued by a St. Paul law firm.
The unanimous decision Tuesday by a three-judge panel in Portland, Ore., comes in the case of the Rev. Andrew Ronan, who committed the alleged abuse of a teenage boy in the 1960s. Ronan died in 1992.
"In a rigid hierarchy like the Catholic church, decisions come from Rome, so it's crucial that Rome be held responsible for on-going cover ups of clergy sex crimes," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents the unnamed plaintiff in this case and whose firm has handled many other cases of abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.
"This ruling sends a clear signal that anyone who enables American kids to be molested will face legal consequences," Anderson added. "It will help prevent future child assaults and cover ups of those assaults. It also signals that the Vatican is not above the law."
According to court documents, Ronan began abusing boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in Ireland. He was transferred to Chicago, where he admitted to abusing three boys at St. Philip's High School. He was then moved to St. Albert's Church in Portland, where he was accused of abusing the victim whose suit is now under appeal.
Tuesday's ruling affirms what Portland-based U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman wrote in 2006 that "the Holy See is not immune from suit" in a case involving a priest with "dangerous proclivities."
The defense had contended that the Vatican is protected from civil action under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Jeffrey Lena, a California attorney for the Holy See, noted that the appeals court ruling was the collective opinion of the appeals court rather than a single opinion, yet was accompanied by individual dissenting and concurring opinions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.