Letting in a little bit of light


MAKING A virtue of necessity the Vatican has this week published on its Vatican Radio website its file on the late abusive American priest Andrew Ronan. The release is welcome but was required by a discovery order from an Oregon court, the first time the Vatican has been forced to publish internal files.

It is an important legal and moral precedent that will certainly be of interest to those investigating clerical abuse and its cover-up in Ireland, hobbled as they were by papal nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza’s refusal to assist both Dublin and Cloyne commissions.

Ronan, a Servite priest from the Friar Servants of Mary, who died in 1992, is the subject of litigation in which plaintiff “John V Doe” is suing the Vatican claiming it has liability for his abuse in 1965 because of its alleged earlier involvement in Ronan’s transfer to Portland from Benburb in Ireland where he had abused children. The case has now been running for nine years and represents a potential first successful breach of the legal shield of “sovereign immunity” under which the Vatican claims the right of sovereign states to protection from prosecution in national courts (the dubious diplomatic-legal principle of “ Rex non potest peccare”, the king can do no wrong).

The US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act contains exceptions – notably when a state engages in commercial activity in the US, or its agents cause injury by “tortious” act. An appeals court, having ruled out several other grounds, has accepted that the Doesuit has sufficiently shown Ronan was an employee of the Vatican acting within the scope of his employment under state law to facilitate the discovery order. The Oregon district court will now rule on the substantive issue.

The Vatican’s lawyer is confident that the released papers will lead to the dismissal of the case – they show that Rome only knew of Ronan’s activities in 1966 and then agreed rapidly to his laicisation.

Yet whatever happens in the Doecase the opening up of the files in Rome must continue. Arguments about legal liability and employer-employee relationships between the Vatican and national churches and religious orders are only part of the story, an avenue for victim redress which will be difficult and may ultimately prove fruitless in the international courts.

But political and moral accountability of the church’s leadership for the acts of national churches is another matter. And not just to its flock. At a diplomatic level, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny implicitly made clear in his recent broadside, it is simply unacceptable that a friendly state should be allowed to thwart an official inquiry by hiding behind the fiction that the lines of authority do not run to Rome, that it has had no part in managing responses to the abuse crisis, no hand in the cover-ups. The lie was given to such assertions by the 1997 letter circulated by the nuncio to Irish bishops calling into question the necessity of adhering to their own guidelines. We have a right to know what other similar advice was given and what Rome’s files on other accused priests contain. Open the books.