Lawyers for the Vatican have called the lawsuit against Pope Benedict and the Holy See a "publicity stunt." I wouldn't go so far as to say that - it has a chance of surviving a motion to dismiss and there may be, embedded in its fifty four pages, a theory that might get to the jury. But there is a sense in which that a publicity stunt is precisely what it is and there may be some larger lessons here about the American liability system.
The lawsuit arises from the predations of a pedophile priest in Milwaukee named Father Murphy. It's a nasty case. Murphy abused numerous young boys at a school for the deaf, largely in the fifties and sixties, but perhaps extending to the early seventies when he was (quite improperly) quietly shuffled away to an early retirement. It is clear that the Milwaukee Archdiocese - in particular Archbishop Meier - failed to act in ways - during the 1960s - that would have halted the abuse. There is no evidence that the Vatican, much less the Pope, had any knowledge of or involvement with Father Murphy during this period. By the time the Vatican (and then Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Office for the Propagation of the Faith) became aware of Murphy's offenses, it was the late 90s. The Milwaukee Archdiocese had brought a belated action to defrock him.
There is a controversy over how that proceeding was conducted and whether it ended prematurely. But it could not have prevented any further abuse and it is almost certain that, however it was handled, Father Murphy would have (as he did) die before it could be completed.
Here is where the publicity stunt begins. What makes this case newsworthy - what puts you in the New York Times and on the networks news - is the defendant in the Apostolic Palace.
There are multiple legal problems with bringing an action against the Pope and Holy See under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Two circuit courts of appeals have allowed part, but not all, of such cases to go forward. The outcomes are not consistent with each other and, in one, a cert petition is pending before the Supreme Court. Without getting into the details, the reasoning in these cases is far from unassailable.
But the theories that have been permitted - largely negligent supervision and a rather curious notion of respondeat superior - have either been rejected or are unlikely to be recognized by Wisconsin law. The Wisconsin Constitution has been interpreted to confer rather broad protection for church autonomy. Even if these problems are not fatal, the actions complained seem to be almost certainly barred by the statute of limitations.
And, as this is important, the wrongs alleged to have been committed by Pope Benedict himself could not have averted any of the very real harms suffered by the plaintiffs. Father Murphy's predations had ended long ago. They - and the feckless response of the Milwaukee Archdiocese - were well known within the deaf community. (It was pressure from that community that lead to the charges against Murphy.) The Milwaukee District Attorney had, rightly or wrongly, already declined to prosecute him. Unless one buys into the dubious notion that the failure to a religious institution to impose discipline long after the fact is a legally cognizable injury, the naming of Pope Benedict XVI is, notwithstanding the sympathetic nature of the plaintiff and the very real horror to which he was subjected - a publicity stunt.
There are a few larger implications. Litigation, in this instance, is being used as a front in a larger war to affect Vatican policy in the future. Although advocates say that something "must change," the fact is that almost everything about the Church's response to clergy abuse has changed. The gravamen of the complaint is to have outsiders manage that change. Once again, we see an attempt to take traditional common law notions of duty and liability and extend them to form the basis for prospective regulation - something which, I would argue, strains judicial competence and usurps prerogatives of civil society - particularly where the institution to be regulated is a religious institution.
Second, a theme in the complaint is that the Vatican should have acted in a way that would have publicized what it calls, at a least one point, "the practice" of child sex abuse. The harm in its failure to do so, it seems, was not limited to the predations committed by known abusers who were placed in a position to abuse again, but in the failure (or so it seems) to let people know that, in general, "priests abuse kids."
This reminds me of other cases in which the theory of liability has been that the defendant (I think of the lead paint and tobacco cases, although those were stronger examples of the approach than this is) should have fallen on its sword. There are numerous difficulties with this theory in this context, but, once again, it strikes me as a questionable spin on traditional notions of common law duty.
Finally, we have the problem of our repeated inability to discuss these matters rationally. When I wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a few weeks ago arguing that it might not be a good idea to completely abolish Wisconsin's generous statute of limitations for cases like this, I was accused of siding against "victims" and not appreciating the gravity of Father Murphy's offenses. Neither charge is fair.
Just as lawyers know that being "against crime" does not mean that we ought to do away with constitutional protections for criminal defendants, we also know that empathy for those to whom bad things have happened doesn't mean that all limitations on liability - even for those "deep pockets" whose relationship with the wrong is indirect - ought to be swept aside.