A US court has delivered a landmark ruling that the Vatican cannot be held legally liable for the activities of a paedophile priest who is alleged to have sexually abused a boy at Benburb’s Servite Priory more than fifty years ago.
Former Benburb cleric Rev. Andrew Ronan, who died in 1982, was at the heart of a landmark legal case in the US which could have resulted in Pope Benedict being sued over sex abuse claims.
The Vatican had sought to halt the lawsuit which accused the Roman Catholic Church of transferring Rev. Andrew Ronan from parish to parish – starting in Benburb and moving to St. Phillip High School in Chicago and then to St. Albert’s Church in Portland, Oregon – despite repeated accusations of sexual abuse in all three positions.
Ronan’s history of sexual abuse allegedly dated to the 1950s at the Benburb priory.
Before his death in 1982 he admitted to abusing three boys at the Chicago High School, and famously said he’d wondered why he’d been transferred to a position at an all-boys school after the previous allegations in Ireland.
The Church finally removed Ronan from the priesthood in 1966.
The plaintiff in the US lawsuit claimed to have been abused by Ronan in the mid-1960s during his stint at St. Albert’s Church in Portland.
The suit claimed there was an international conspiracy on the part of church leaders to move Fr Ronan from Ireland, covering up the allegations and putting countless young people at risk.
However, US District Court Judge Michael Mosman ruled this week that the Vatican could not be regarded as Ronan’s employer.
The case was important not only because it was the first attempt made to hold the Vatican directly responsible for moving Ronan to different dioceses, where he continued to abuse children, but also because the Holy See was ordered by a court to hand over documents it held in its vaults, again a first.
“There are no facts to create a true employment relationship between Ronan and the Holy See,” said Judge Mosman in his ruling. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Jeff Anderson, said he was saddened and disappointed by the ruling but will be appealing it and “we expect to prevail”.
“We believe that under further scrutiny the courts will find that Vatican protocols and practice make it clear that obedience to Rome required the secrecy, and concealment practised by priests and bishops as the clergy abuse crisis unfolded in the United States,” he said in a statement.
Irish campaigner Andrew Madden said last night the American ruling was not surprising.
“At Vatican level, every effort is made to avoid taking responsibility and that extends to priests who are employees of the church globally,” he said.
However, he added there was a significant judgment in England recently in which a court ruled that diocesan priests were employees of the diocese and the diocese was therefore vicariously responsible for the priest’s conduct.