VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Friday dismissed as illegitimate a lawsuit filed in the United States against Pope Benedict and his top aides over a case of sexual abuse at a school for deaf boys in Wisconsin.
“The case against the Holy See and its officials is completely without merit. Most of the complaint rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts,” Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena said in a statement.
“While legitimate lawsuits have been filed by abuse victims, this is not one of them,” the lawyer said.
He was referring to a lawsuit called “John Doe 16 v. Holy See” filed in a Milwaukee federal court on Thursday on behalf of an unidentified plaintiff who was allegedly abused by Father Lawrence Murphy.
Murphy taught at a Roman Catholic boarding school for the deaf in Wisconsin from 1950 to 1974 and has been accused of abusing some 200 deaf boys.
The suit alleges that the pope, in an earlier role before his election, and other Vatican officials failed to discipline Murphy in the 1990s when U.S. Church officials discovered the abuse, reported it to the Vatican and wanted him defrocked.
The filing of the lawsuit, in which lawyers for the plaintiff say he suffered “severe emotional distress” because of a lack of action, was the latest headache for the Vatican as fallout from the scandal continues to spread.
The Vatican announced the pope had accepted the resignation of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium, who admitted in a statement that he had sexually abused a young man.
The U.S. lawsuit names the pope, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and a former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, as defendants.
Bertone was number two at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his election as pope in 2005.
The Vatican said the U.S. suit was part of a wider assault against the Church.
“The lawsuit represents an attempt to use tragic events as a platform for a broader attack — this one dependent on re-characterizing the Catholic Church as a worldwide ‘business enterprise’,” Lena said.
The Vatican has said it cannot be seen as a multinational business whose executives can be held ultimately responsible for the action of their subordinates, because dioceses around the world have their own legal status.
It has also said the pope, as head of a sovereign state recognized by more than 170 countries, has diplomatic immunity from prosecution in other countries.
The New York Times reported last month that the Vatican did not defrock Murphy in the late 1990s, when the pope was head of the office dealing with abuse, despite receiving clear warnings from bishops that his case was serious. Murphy died in 1998.
Lena’s statement said: “With regard to Murphy himself, the Holy See and its officials knew nothing of his crimes until decades after the abuse occurred, and had no role whatsoever in causing plaintiff’s injuries.”
The suit in the United States was filed by Jeffrey Anderson, who has represented many abuse victims in cases against local dioceses.
“Given its lack of merit, the lawsuit — together with its de rigueur press conference and news releases — is simply the latest attempt by certain U.S. lawyers to use the judicial process as a tool of media relations,” Lena said.
Editing by Janet Lawrence