When Americans United went to court to challenge the Reagan administration’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1984, we warned that the exchange of ambassadors could have unintended consequences.
Has it ever.
The pedophilia scandal is now worldwide in scope. Evidence continues to mount that Pope Benedict XVI and other top church officials knew about the abuse but didn’t contact relevant law enforcement agencies or discipline offending priests internally. Instead, they often reassigned clerics to other parishes – where many committed more offenses.
Victims seeking justice want to know what the Vatican knew and how involved church officials were in covering up the crimes. But their efforts to get that information have been stymied because the Holy See – the headquarters of the church– claims immunity as a sovereign state.
Yet the Holy See is a “nation” in name only. Sure the Vatican City State holds sway over 110 acres in Rome. But our diplomatic relationship is not with Vatican City, but with the Holy See, the office of the pope itself.
This pretend papal statehood has produced ample negative consequences. Through its observer status at the United Nations, for example, the Holy See has repeatedly meddled in international affairs, seeking to thwart efforts to expand rights for women and gay people.
Now the pope is invoking sovereign immunity to block litigation in America brought by the victims of abuse. Last month, Giuseppe dalla Torre, a Vatican legal adviser, arrogantly insisted that U.S. lawsuits against the pope are futile.
“The pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state,” he proclaimed.
Americans United’s lawsuit challenging U.S. diplomatic ties with the Holy See was tossed out on technical grounds. That’s a shame. Had the suit been allowed to move forward, questions about the pope’s claim of sovereignty might have received the examination they deserved.
AU questioned the legality of the American government having a special legal relationship with one church – a relationship that can never be duplicated with any other denomination.
Instead of seriously examining that issue and claims of Vatican statehood, a federal appeals court allowed the Reagan administration to plow forward, overlooking the fact that permitting the world’s most powerful nation to officially recognize the Vatican could only boost the church’s claims to be a sovereign state.
Twenty-six years later it’s obvious what a mistake that was, and now some scholars and legal experts are finally calling for a reexamination of the pope’s claims to immunity. But it may be too late.
The stories of the victims of clerical abuse are heart-breaking. Some have won settlements in civil court but seek another type of justice: holding accountable those who covered up the abuse or made it possible by shuttling molester priests around the country.
The myth of papal statehood is an impediment to this final form of justice. For the sake of the rule of law and simple human decency, that block must be removed.