Pope Seeks Immunity in Texas Abuse Case
By Nicole Winfield
The Associated Press
Thursday 17 August 2005
Rome - The lawyer who is suing Pope Benedict XVI in Texas for allegedly covering up the sexual abuse of children by a seminarian said Wednesday he would challenge the US diplomatic recognition of the Vatican if the pope is given immunity in the case.
The pope's lawyers have already asked President Bush to certify Benedict's immunity from liability in the civil lawsuit since he is a head of state - the Vatican city-state.
Attorney Daniel Shea, who is representing one of three boys suing the pope, told a news conference Wednesday that Bush could abstain from confirming Benedict's immunity. In that case, the judge handling the case, Judge Lee Rosenthal of the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, would decide how to proceed, he said.
But if Bush grants the immunity, Shea said he would challenge the constitutionality of the US diplomatic recognition of the Holy See as a sovereign state on First Amendment grounds.
"The Holy See is a church," Shea said.
Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict's former name - is named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit, accused of conspiring with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to cover up the abuse of three boys during the mid-1990s. The suit is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
The three boys, identified in court documents as John Does I, II and III, allege that a Colombian-born seminarian on assignment at St. Francis de Sales church in Houston, Juan Carlos Patino-Arango, molested them during counseling sessions in the church in the mid-1990s.
Patino-Arango has been indicted in a criminal case by a Harris County, Texas, grand jury and is a fugitive from justice, the lawsuit says.
Shea has argued in civil court documents that a May 18, 2001, letter Ratzinger wrote to bishops around the world was evidence that he was involved in a conspiracy to hide Patino-Arango's crimes and to help him escape prosecution.
The letter, written when Ratzinger was still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explains that "grave" crimes such as the sexual abuse of minors would be handled by his congregation and that the proceedings of special church tribunals handling the cases were subject to "pontifical secret."
While international experts say the pope can certainly claim immunity in the case and that ultimately Shea's suit won't succeed, lawyers for church sex abuse victims say the case is significant because it has gone further than other recent attempts to implicate the Vatican and high-ranking church officials in the sex scandal.
Shea acknowledged that a previous court challenge to the US diplomatic recognition of the Holy See failed, but said it was because the plaintiffs - a lobbying group seeking further separation of church and state - didn't have standing, meaning they weren't affected by the issue.
"John Doe I, II and III have got standing and then some," he said.
He said Bush may also choose to abstain from the case because of the political implications it may have.
"The Evangelical community has been horrified at what they've seen in these cases, and I don't think his political base can stand him in effect providing cover for Ratzinger. But that's a political question," he said.
The State Department has said the pope already is considered a head of state and automatically has diplomatic immunity. Spokeswoman Gerry Keener said Tuesday that Benedict doesn't have to ask for immunity and Bush doesn't have to grant it.
The Vatican spokesman and Ratzinger's lawyers have declined to comment on the case.