by Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
August 22, 2011
St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson has released thousands of pages of documents that the Vatican turned over in response to a lawsuit alleging the Church covered up a decades-old case of sex abuse by an Oregon priest.
Anderson said the documents are an unprecedented look inside the Vatican and clerical sex abuse. But the church says not all legal avenues lead to Rome, regrettable as the scandal may be.
Anderson’s decades-long pursuit of child abuse by Catholic clergy has finally reached into the Vatican, he said Monday.
“For the first time ever, as a result of this survivor’s courage, he has required that the Vatican not only answer questions, but produce documents,” said Anderson, who is known for suing the church for misconduct by priests.
He said the documents are part of the paperwork turned over by Rome after a lengthy legal battle by an Oregon man who said an itinerant priest abused him 45 years ago.
Anderson highlighted a pair of letters, one from Chicago in 1963 and another from California in 1966.
The earlier letter says the church’s Servite religious order sent priest Andrew Ronan to the U.S. after he’d been found sexually abusing boys in Ireland. A church official feared he was doing the same at a high school in Illinois. The second letter asks the church to defrock him before an open scandal.
Ronan died in 1992. The legal battle right now doesn’t revolve around his alleged abuse, but whether the church was legally responsible for Ronan’s misconduct under U.S. employment law.
Speaking at a press conference in Anderson’s office, Terry McKiernan, a Boston-based church critic and founder of an online depository of documents and accounts of priest misconduct, welcomed the new disclosures.
He said he suspected there was much more documentation of the case still in the Vatican archives.
“But this is the first time that we’ve really seen the paper trail on the inside,” he said.
Some of the documentation in the Ronan case has been released before, by church administrators in Oregon.
And some of the latest disclosure appears to be boiler plate administrative documents, like a 1922 guide for handling priestly misconduct, and a 1962 revision. Like other paperwork released by Anderson, those policies are in church Latin.
California attorney Jeffrey Lena said such documents have been long acknowledged by the church.
Lena represents the Holy See — the legal name for the Vatican. The church in Rome has been battling to stay out of federal court, saying it is immune from lawsuits like Anderson’s because it is a foreign state. That immunity effort has fallen short so far.
Lena said the church has nonetheless been forthright in the matter, both now, and decades ago. The church defrocked Ronan within weeks of the abuse coming to light in Oregon.
Lena is critical of Anderson’s claims.
“Jeff [Anderson] has effectively misled the public in this case,” he said. “I say that about him without criticism of him with respect to many of his other cases, where he’s brought terrible incidents of abuse to light, and this may also involve a terrible incident of abuse.”
But Lena said Anderson’s legal arguments are wrong for several reasons.
“One is that the Holy See had knowledge of this person as an abuser, and the second is that the Holy See participated in the transfer of this person. Neither of those are true,” he said.
Church supporters say that bishops are the formal administrators of the priesthood, and that the Vatican doesn’t directly oversee their work or conduct.
Anderson said Monday that he believes more paperwork will come to light, showing the church knew about Ronan and failed to stop him.
The case is currently going through pre-trial evidence gathering in federal court in Oregon. The plaintiff is only known as John Doe and has not spoken publicly about the case.