Monday, 5 July 2010

Doe v Holy See - Not as Important as it appears

Many media outlets have been announcing that the Vatican has been stripped of its Diplomatic Immunity by the US Supreme Court of which this Article in the Guardian Newspaper “Without its immunity, can the Vatican survive ?” is fairly typical. Unlike just about everyone else who seems to have commented on the subject I decided to find the facts first and comment afterwards and the actual legal facts are quite different from what is being reported.

Firstly the US Supreme Court has not made any decision for or against the Vatican, or The Holy See as it is more properly termed, what the Court has done is to refuse to review a decision made by a lower Court namely the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and this is simply reported on the Supreme Court website as “Certiorari Denied” along with a large number of other refusals of “cert”. I will deal with the implications of the Supreme Court refusing cert later but for the moment will look at the 9th Circuit decision itself Doe v Holy See No 06-35563

I am, of course, not an American Lawyer but the US and England share a common legal heritage and approach as is well demonstrated in this case which followed exactly the same legal principles applied in an English “strike out” application. A strike out application occurs before a trial and requires the Court to assume, FOR THE SAKE OF THE ARGUMENT, that everything alleged by the plaintiff is true which is exactly the assumption the 9th Circuit was required to make when it was considering this appeal. It is important to be clear on this point, there has been no trial regarding Does allegations or assertions and all the legal proceedings so far have been entirely questions of law.

In the case Doe ( a pseudonym) is alleging that he was abused around about 1965 by a Priest Father Ronan (who is now dead); whilst it is difficult to see how there can be a fair trial on something alleged to have been done 45 years ago that was not the issue before the 9th Circuit. In his claim Doe sued two US Diocese and also Ronans Religious Order which would be the normal defendants in this type of case. What made the case unique was that Doe also sued the Holy See on two basis namely that the Holy See was vicariously liable for the (alleged) acts of the 2 Diocese and the Order which he claimed to be the “agents or instrumentalities” of the Holy See, it was also alleged that Father Ronan was an “employee” of the Holy See and as such the Holy See was vicariously Liable for Ronans (alleged) acts.

Now it is important to understand that the 9th Circuit accepted completely that the Holy See was a Sovereign State under International and US law and as such was entitled to exactly the same diplomatic and legal immunity enjoyed by every other Sovereign State, no more and no less. Under US law no sovereign state enjoys blanket immunity from suit and every sovereign state can be sued under the provisions of the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act” (Wikipedia summary here) for Torts (Civil Wrongs) committed by its employees unless they are engaged in acts “peculiar to sovereigns” eg acting as an Ambassador or Consul.

To make a comparison, and without getting too technical, if an employee of the UK Government in the USA sexually assaulted a minor whilst visiting an American School in the course of his or her duties then the UK Government could be sued in the American Courts for damages arising from that Tort however that would not affect the status of the UK as a Sovereign independent state nor would it affect the general legal principle that UK Embassy staff cannot be sued for acts committed in carrying out their official duties. Similarly a British Trade mission could be sued for Torts committed by its staff in the course of their duties because the work of a Trade mission is not work “peculiar to sovereigns” [NB 'Sovereigns' in this context means any foreign ruler or Government whether republican or monarchical]

The 9th Circuit made no decision as to whether Father Ronan had or had not done anything wrong nor did they decide whether he was or was not an Employee of the Holy See. As I have already mentioned, there has not yet been a trial and no examination of any evidence and for the purposes of deciding whether the Holy See COULD be liable the 9th Circuit had to accept the bare assertion by Doe that Father Ronan was an employee of the Holy See. On that basis they decided that if (and it is a very big IF) Ronan was an employee of the Holy See then the Holy See would be vicariously liable for his actions. Whilst the question of whether Fr Ronan was an Employee of the Holy See will depend on the exact definition of “employee” in Oregon law it is up to Doe to prove that Fr Ronan was an Employee and I doubt if he will be able to do that especially if Fr Ronan was paid by the Diocese and/or his Order

More significantly the 9th Circuit decided that the American Diocese and the Order were not “agents or instrumentalities” of the Holy See and therefore the Holy See is not vicariously liable for any actions of the Diocese or their employees. That I think is the real core decision in this case and I suspect the lawyers for the Holy See are happy about it because it clearly distinguishes between the status of the Holy See as an Internationally recognised state under International Law and the status of the Diocese etc of the Catholic Church as nationally recognised Religious Organisations under US law. The Court noted for example that the Holy See can only be sued in the US Federal Courts under the defined terms of the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act” whilst Catholic Diocese etc can be sued in both State and Federal Courts under ordinary Tort liability, conversely American Catholic Diocese etc enjoy the protection of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution whilst the Holy See does not.

In Summary therefore the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (NOT the United States Supreme Court) has decided

  • The Holy See is a Sovereign State under US Law
  • The Holy See can only be sued in the US on the same basis as any Sovereign State and enjoys exactly the same immunity from suit as any other Sovereign State
  • Catholic Diocese and Organisations in the US are not “Agents or Instrumentalities” of the Holy See and the Holy See cannot be held liable for their actions
  • The Holy See can only be sued with respect to the Acts of its “employees” and not for the acts of Catholic Priests etc generally
Finally on the issue of the Supreme Court refusing to review the 9th Circuits decision (refusing 'cert' ) this is not unusual in the circumstances of this case where as yet there has been no trial and no findings of fact. No Appellate Court likes to deal with cases, such as this, where there have no been any findings of fact and where the decision of the 9th Circuit is not (so far as I can see) in conflict with any decision by any other Circuit. Refusing cert in these circumstances does not mean that the Supreme Court necessarily agrees or disagrees with the 9th Circuit merely that the case has not yet reached a stage which is appropriate for adjudication by the Supreme Court.

PS For my American Legal Readers (if any). If I have misunderstood or misrepresented American Law or procedure please let me know and I will correct the Blog. As an aside I do find the fact that American court Judgments contain “footnotes” very peculiar and unique to US Judgments. Yes I know I'm a Limey and you have just celebrated 4th July but honestly lads it does look weird !

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