The administration of US President George W. Bush partially sided with the Vatican in a lawsuit seeking class-action damages from the Roman Catholic Church and its headquarters for an alleged cover-up of priests sexually abusing children in the US.
The US Justice Department and State Department argued in a friend of the court brief that the Holy See may only be sued as a foreign country, not a religious institution, because the US government recognizes it as a foreign state. US law provides immunity to foreign countries from most lawsuits.
The filing to the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals comes in a case brought by three men alleging the Vatican orchestrated a cover-up of US priests sexually abusing children. Louisville attorney William McMurry is seeking class-action status, saying there are thousands of other victims.
US District Judge John Heyburn II ruled in January that the men may pursue their claim that top Church officials should have warned the public or local authorities of known or suspected sexual abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville. Heyburn dismissed a large chunk of the lawsuit.
Both McMurry and the Vatican appealed the ruling. The 6th Circuit has not ruled on the case.
Along with the accusations against the Vatican, the suit challenges the constitutionality of the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which generally gives immunity to foreign countries from most lawsuits.
McMurry has said the law violates the plaintiff's rights to a trial on the merits of the case. McMurry also argues that the law does not apply to the Holy See because of its dual role as a religious institution and country.
The Bush administration's brief defends the law, saying the US government has recognized the Vatican as a country since 1984 and that the president alone, not the court system, may recognize a country.
Bush administration lawyers are not taking sides about the merits of the lawsuit.