NEW YORK (Reuters) - Seven people who say they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests when they were children sued the Vatican on Tuesday, saying that a secrecy policy imposed on U.S. bishops effectively fostered child sex abuse by some clergy.
A state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits on child sex abuse cases cleared the way for the suit, which was filed in federal court in New York and seeks class-action status. The plaintiffs will face an uphill climb in the suit, since U.S. law acknowledges the Vatican as a sovereign entity not subject to U.S. courts.
“The Holy See’s secrecy policy enabled and emboldened child sexual predators among clergy working in the dioceses, creating an environment and system which they could engage in child sexual abuse with impunity,” read the lawsuit.
New York state’s Child Victims Act, which took effect in August, temporarily enables victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits over decades-old crimes.
Many priests and a few bishops have been caught up in the abuse crisis, which exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up.
Patterns of widespread abuse of children have since been reported across the United States and Europe, in Chile and Australia, undercutting the 1.2 billion-member Church’s moral authority and taking a toll on its membership and coffers.
Pope Francis on Tuesday announced sweeping changes to the way the Church deals with sexual abuse of minors, abolishing the rule of “pontifical secrecy” in a move victims’ groups said was long overdue.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim they were sexually abused as children by clergymen in New York state dioceses, one at the age of 9.
They also claim the Vatican and the bishops were aware of the presence of sexual predators within the Catholic church’s ranks and that by mandating a policy of secrecy in response to allegations of abuse they effectively “fostered a child sex ring in the Church,” the lawsuit said.
The suit, which seeks monetary damages against the Vatican, faces long odds of success, even in the eyes of one long-time U.S. advocate for victims of priestly sex abuse.
“The Holy See is treated by the United States as a sovereign state and so suing a sovereign entity is difficult,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the CEO of Child USA, a non-profit think-tank working to end child abuse and neglect. “It’s always a long shot.”
Reporting by Maria Caspani, additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Scott Malone and Giles Elgood