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U.S. sex abuse lawsuit against Vatican dismissed

MILWAUKEE >> Lawyers for a man who was sexually abused decades ago by a priest at a school for the deaf have withdrawn their lawsuit naming Pope Benedict XVI and other top Vatican officials as defendants, a major victory for the Holy See, which has long insisted the pope bears no liability for the actions of an abusive priest.

Attorney Jeff Anderson had filed the lawsuit with great fanfare at the peak of a European explosion of the sex abuse scandal in 2010. He alleged that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his deputies knew about allegations of sexual abuse at St. John’s School for the Deaf and prevented internal punishment of the accused priest.

The lawsuit had helped shift the blame for priestly sex abuse in the public mind away from bishops — who are responsible for their priests — to the Vatican and Benedict himself.

The Vatican at the time had rejected Anderson’s lawsuit as a publicity stunt, and the Vatican’s U.S. attorney said Saturday the dismissal demonstrates that the case was meritless and never should have been filed in the first place.

Anderson’s firm filed a voluntary notice Friday in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee to dismiss the lawsuit.

Anderson said a key reason for the suit, which named Ratzinger as one of four defendants, had been to hold the pope and Vatican accountable for abuse. He claimed that the goal was now accomplished in a secondary way, after a favorable ruling this past week from a federal court in which the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had filed bankruptcy. He said he was given 30,000 pages of new documents that show how Vatican officials were indifferent to reports of clergy sex abuse.

“There really is no compelling reason to move forward with this battle on two fronts when we’re making ground on one,” he said Saturday.

While his initial goal was to depose Ratzinger and other top officials, Anderson acknowledged that the legal impediments were proving to be enormous. He said at the least the new documents represent a “consolation prize — it’s not a victory but it’s still a real prize.”

Jeffrey Lena, a Vatican attorney, said Anderson had settled on a convenient excuse for dismissing the lawsuit.

“The real reason is, he was required to file a response to our motion to dismiss, and he knew he was going to lose the suit,” Lena said.

On Jan. 31, the judge rejected a bid by Anderson to respond to the Vatican’s motion to dismiss the case in two separate, sequenced filings, with one response covering jurisdictional issues and the other on stating a claim. By forcing Anderson to respond to both at the same time, Lena said, Anderson was put in a box: forced to use facts one way to support the jurisdiction issue, another way to keep the underlying claims alive.

“Caught in this impossible bind, he of course had to dismiss,” Lena said.

The dismissal of the suit now leaves Anderson with one main sex abuse lawsuit naming the Holy See as a defendant, a case in Oregon. In 2010, a lawsuit against the Holy See was dismissed in Kentucky after the lawyer for the victim withdrew it.

The Wisconsin lawsuit named as defendants Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI; Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state; his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano; and the Holy See.

Anderson’s lawsuit had claimed the three men knew about allegations of sexual abuse at a Milwaukee-area school for the deaf, and called off internal punishment of the accused priest. The Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998, was accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the school from 1950 to 1974.

The Vatican has long insisted that bishops are the masters of their dioceses and that they, not the Vatican, should be held liable for the actions of abusive priests. The Murphy case had been seen as a potential problem for the Holy See, however, since documentation showed that Bertone at one point had told the bishop to drop the church legal case against Murphy because of his age and ill health.

The Vatican insisted that the decision to halt the trial remained with the bishop and that regardless, Murphy died while still a defendant in the church case against him.

Anderson withdrew the suit one day after a federal judge ruled that two claims could move forward against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for alleged sexual abuse by clergy, laying the groundwork for about 570 claims to follow.

The archdiocese had argued that the two claims were beyond the six-year statute of limitations for fraud. The judge said the question of when the statute of limitations begins must be answered at a trial.

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