My email inbox suggests to me that there is a lot of anxiety out there about recent news that the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) turned down an appeal by the Holy See against a lower court ruling that U.S. Catholic priests and religious are effectively employees of the Holy See.
The sky is not falling.
The Court’s action is related to a state of Oregon case which names the Holy See as a defendant in a case involving sexual abuse of minors dating back to the 60’s by a now-deceased priest of the Servite Order.
On the day after SCOTUS’s action was announced, Italian national newspapers reacted with blithering panic. Headlines screamed that the Supreme Court had ruled that priests were employees of the Vatican and that the Pope was therefore legally liable in sexual abuse cases.
SCOTUS did no such thing.
What actually happened is very complicated from a legal point of view, but I will try to break it down to a few essential points according to my understanding.
I am not a lawyer and this is complicated stuff.
I am happy to be corrected by any lawyers who get this.
- SCOTUS simply refused to hear an appeal by the Holy See from a decision by the 9th Federal Appellate Circuit Court, which upheld a Federal District Court ruling in Oregon that, under provisions of the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), employees of a foreign, sovereign state can be prosecuted for certain crimes (torts) that they commit in the U.S.
- SCOTUS did not hand down any ruling on this question. SCOTUS simply let stand the Appellate Court ruling. This is an important point. It means that (what the MMS in Italy and in the US are saying notwithstanding) SCOTUS did not rule that priests and Religious are Vatican employees.
- The effect of the Federal Court rulings is to allow the case to go to trial in the Oregon state courts. Those state courts must still decide whether priests and Religious who work in the U.S. can be considered Holy See employees under the definition of employee in Oregon law. If the Oregon courts make this ruling, then lawyers for the plaintiffs will try to get the Oregon courts to hold the Holy See, the Pope, General Zod, the most Holy Trinity, liable for financial judgment in this case. That could open the door for similar legal actions against the Pope in other states.
- But wait! There’s more! If the Oregon court reaches this judgment, then lawyers for the Holy See can once again appeal the judgment all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court. They can also appeal the judgment back to the federal court system, this time arguing on the basis of testimony provided during the trial that the court’s judgment violates the provision of sovereign immunity under the 1976 FSIA. Subsequently, should the case reach SCOTUS, SCOTUS could decide to hear arguments from both sides and to render a decision. Only in then would we have a SCOTUS ruling on this question.