(RNS) From a small office in Berkeley, Calif., attorney Jeffrey Lena tries to avoid publicity, despite the increasingly high-profile nature of his work as the Vatican's U.S. counsel.
As a sovereign immunity law specialist, Lena, 51, has spent the past decade defending the Holy See from lawsuits -- most recently one that seek to hold Pope Benedict XVI responsible for crimes committed by local abusive priests and the bishops who protected them.
Lena talked about Monday's (June 28) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a 2002 Oregon abuse lawsuit against the Holy See to move forward, and how it would impact his legal defense in this and other cases in the U.S.
(Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: What was your reaction to the Supreme Court's decision, especially coming a month after the Obama administration filed a brief affirming the Holy See's immunity?
A: The Supreme Court has its own standards for deciding which cases it wants to hear. Generally, it looks for a clear split between different appellate courts before it takes a case. Because our issue is unusual, there was no strong split. This is no reflection on the merits of our arguments.
Q: What does this mean for the Vatican's immunity status in this Oregon lawsuit and other clergy abuse cases?
A: The issue of foreign sovereign immunity is far from over. The Supreme Court simply declined to review one narrow issue. The key issue -- whether this priest, Andrew Ronan, was an employee of the Holy See -- was not addressed. That question will be taken up now by the district court in Oregon.
Q: Does this change your legal strategy?
A: The legal strategy is unaffected. The question remains whether there is jurisdiction over the Holy See under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Jurisdiction requires the court to determine that Ronan is an employee of the Holy See.
This is not just a legal issue, but a factual issue, as well. The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest. This really does not meet any of the factors which indicate the presence of an employment relationship with the Holy See. Ronan simply was not an employee of the Holy See; therefore, the court does not have jurisdiction in this case.
Q: Ronan, who died in 1992, had been moved from Ireland to Chicago and Portland. Doesn't that imply some sort of international oversight by the Catholic Church, and therefore responsibility beyond the local level?
A: Andrew Ronan was a priest of a religious order, the Friar Servants of Mary. Religious orders cover broad swaths of territory, and it is not uncommon for them to move between provinces as well as within them.
Only the order knew about his propensities and, as far as I know, only the order exerted control over him. The fact that he is moving internationally does not mean he is "employed" by the Holy See. Not true at all. He is an order priest, controlled and moved around by the order.
Q: What does the Supreme Court's decision mean for the Vatican's efforts to distance itself from clergy abuse cases in America, including lawsuits in Kentucky and Wisconsin?
A: This decision does not change the situation. It simply means that the questions will now be taken up by the district court rather than having been resolved by the Supreme Court. This decision has no effect on the other cases, which do not involve the same legal issues relating to employment.
Q: What is the current status of the three clergy abuse lawsuits currently naming the Holy See?
A: In Kentucky, the court will be ruling on the Holy See's legal challenges to the complaint, as well as examine the question of whether the bishop of Louisville is an employee of the Holy See. In Oregon, one can expect the court to examine whether the priest (Ronan) was an employee of the Holy See. In the Wisconsin case, the complaint has yet to be served, so there is no need to defend this case at this time.
Q: Do you expect that this ruling will prompt more lawsuits against the Holy See?
A: It seems unlikely.
Q: Do you think the Supreme Court's religious makeup -- six of the nine justices are Catholics -- had any impact on this decision?
A: There is no basis to speculate about that. I have every confidence that the justices make their determination based upon what cases are best for the Supreme Court to hear. The religious orientation of the justices is not an issue in my mind at all.
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