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Vatican Again Assumes Role of State to Escape Culpability in Sex Abuse Lawsuit

March 4, 2005


To: Reporters
From: Jon O’Brien
Vice President, Catholics for a Free Choice
Date: March 4, 2005
Re: Vatican again assumes role of state to escape culpability in sex abuse lawsuit

A March 3 report from the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr. disclosed that last month Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano appealed to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “intervene in a US lawsuit naming the Holy See as a defendant in a sex abuse case.”

Last June, Attorney William McMurray filed a class-action lawsuit against the Vatican in US District Court for the Western District of Kentucky on behalf of more than 240 victims of clergy sex abuse. In addition to unspecified monetary damages from the Vatican, McMurray also requested injunctions requiring the Vatican to “cease its violations of the internationally recognized human rights of children” and “to report all allegations of childhood sexual abuse” in the United States. In response, the Vatican is seeking immunity from prosecution. NCR also reported that the Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls stated, “It’s obvious and reasonable that the Holy See would present its positions as a sovereign entity to the American State Department, and recall the immunity for its acts that international law anticipates.”

This is not the first time that the Vatican has claimed statehood to avoid a lawsuit. In November of 2000, the Vatican’s bank argued that because of its identity with an independent state, it should be granted immunity from prosecution in a lawsuit charging it with laundering gold and other assets stolen by a Nazi puppet regime.

Despite its frequent assertions and efforts to be granted the same rights and opportunities as sovereign nations, however, the Holy See not a state.

In 1999, Catholics for a Free Choice, along with hundreds of organizations and thousands of people worldwide, launched The “See Change” Campaign to change the status of the Roman Catholic church at the United Nations. Concerned that the church had flown in under UN radar by calling itself the Holy See, the campaign called on the UN Secretary-General to review the church’s status as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. CFFC and The “See Change” Campaign believes that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world’s other religions do—as a non-governmental organization.

As a matter of law, it is our firm belief that the Holy See does not meet the criteria laid out for a state.

The Holy See is “the supreme organ of government of the [Catholic] Church,” with the pope as its head. It is, therefore by definition, a government and not a state, or to be exact, a non-territorial religious entity. According to the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

The Holy See does not satisfy this definition: it does not possess a defined territory. Because the Holy See is the supreme organ of government for Catholics worldwide, it cannot be said to have a “permanent population.” Finally, the Holy See is itself the government of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican City. It cannot therefore be regarded as an entity that possesses a government. In fact, the Vatican relies on Italy to carry out a number of ‘stately’ functions for it by supplying the police force to patrol it, providing for the punishment of crimes committed within the city and maintaining the water and railway systems for the area.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See is accountable to the world community. It is responsible for the sexual abuse of minors by priests and abuses of power by its representatives, employees and leaders. As the case in Kentucky goes forward, it is imperative that the Holy See commits to cooperating with local civil authorities by providing evidence and assisting with the prosecution of Catholic church officials involved in abuse of children and adolescents. Specifically, the Holy See should reveal to the US District Court in Louisville, KY, what measures it has taken to eliminate the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clergy and religious, and what measures it proposes to take to secure justice for these children. By tolerating sexual abuse by its clergy and by seeking sovereign immunity rather than answering questions on the scope of its culpability, the Vatican is derelict in its responsibilities and commitments to two international conventions: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

CFFC and The “See Change” Campaign have produced a briefing paper entitled “The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?” By examining the Holy See’s role at the UN and its claims to statehood, the briefing paper reveals the privileged status of the Holy See at the UN, questions how it was obtained and raises serious questions about the legitimacy of that status.

To learn more about the Holy See’s attempts to operate as a sovereign entity in the international arena, please contact the International Department of Catholics for a Free Choice at (202) 986-6093 or by email.