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Portland Case Against Vatican Will Likely Go to Jury

By August 21, 2011December 22nd, 2015No Comments

Big news was made this week in a Portland priest abuse case when a Vatican agency, the “Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life,”  in charge of all religious orders throughout the world, released documents concerning pedophile priest Rev. Andrew Ronan. This release followed an order by a federal judge in Portland in April that the Vatican release such documents, so that the parties could better understand what role, if any, the Vatican played in the transfer of Ronan to Portland in the 60’s, after which he abused the plaintiff in the current lawsuit.  The judicial order is unprecedented in that no US civil court has ever ordered a congregation within the Vatican, a sovereign state, to release documents related to a civil lawsuit in the United States.  Now that the documents have been released, the Vatican attorney, Jeffrey Lena,  is claiming victory because, according to him, the documents (which are in Latin and Italian) show no Vatican knowledge of the priest’s sexual abuse of the plaintiff John Doe.  Furthermore, Lena claims that the documents also prove the Vatican did not authorize the transfer of Rev. Andrew Ronan to Portland in the 1960’s. 

With all due respect to Mr Lena, who is a good attorney, there’s more to the legal and ecclesiastical stories than simply whether the documents show a “smoking gun” kind of knowledge by the Vatican of Ronan’s history of abuse.  The question is one of “principal-agency” under Oregon law.  This is something I know more than a little about, since it was one of my cases—Fearing v Bucher and the Archdiocese of Portland—in 1999 before the Oregon Supreme Court that shaped this law, especially when it comes to sexual abuse of children by trusted adults.  So let’s look more closely at the case, and at Lena’s claims.

While it seems plain that the Sacred Congregation for Religious (the former name of the Vatican agency) did not directly make the decision to transfer Rev. Ronan from Chicago to Portland, this fact alone does not answer the central legal question in the case: whether Ronan, under Oregon law, can be considered an “agent” of the Vatican.  If so, then the Vatican, like any “principal,” can be liable for the acts of its agent, even intentional wrongdoing, such as sexual abuse.  And the test for “agency” under Oregon law is whether the principal has the “right to control” the agent in the means and manner by which the agent carries out his duties.  And here, of course, it is plain to anyone who has ever spent five minutes thinking about it, that the Vatican Congregation for Religious of course would have had the right to control—and did in fact control—the means and manner of Ronan’s priestly duties, as it did for all priests:  requiring him, for example, to live a celibate life and not to marry; setting out in great detail how and what he was to teach his parishioners in terms of Catholic doctrine and catechism; when and under what conditions he could marry a young couple, and when and under what conditions he could not marry an older couple with previous marriages;  how and in what manner he would celebrate the Eucharist or conduct baptisms—the list goes on and on of how, under canon law, the Vatican, through its Congregation for Religious, had the right to control the details of Ronan’s work.   Perhaps the most important fact is that it was the Vatican Congregation, and no one else, who had the sole power to decide whether Ronan would even remain a priest.  Indeed, one of the undisputed points in the case is that Ronan himself petitioned the Sacred Congregation for Religious to leave the priesthood.  Obviously, Ronan, his superiors in the Servite Order, the bishop in Portland, and the Vatican all understood that the power to grant such a leave remained solely in the hands of the Vatican Sacred Congregation for Religious. 

So if the legal question in the Ronan case is “agency” as understood in Oregon law—and I think it is—then in my view as a sex abuse attorney for hundreds of men and women abused as children by Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders, Mormon Church leaders, and other trusted adults, the Vatican could be lawfully held liable by a federal jury in Portland for the acts of Ronan. 

Nor should those who claim that the Church has come in for special or discriminatory treatment under the law be taken seriously.  The Church gets the same analysis under civil law as any business or nonprofit organization.  In any large organization, a mid-level manager has the authority to monitor and perhaps transfer agents and employees from one department to another.  However, hiring and firing policies, and orders about how to carry out the work,  come from a higher source, namely, the top level administration of the company—the principal. The analysis is no different for any nonprofit organization or church—including the Catholic Church.

The question before US District Judge Michael W. Mosman concerns this principal-agent relationship.  If Judge Mosman rules that the evidence presented to him is sufficient to show that the Vatican had the right to control Ronan in the means and manner of his priestly duties, then Judge Mosman would allow the case to proceed to a jury, which would ultimately be called upon to decide if Ronan was under the direction and control of the Vatican.  Stay tuned: the case could get very interesting.