June 29 was the final day of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2009-2010 term. While much of the news coverage was focused on the Court's surprising ruling (in McDonald v. Chicago) that the Second Amendment applies to the states and not just to the federal government, another decision more immediately affects Catholics in the United States and worldwide.
The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the Vatican in the case of Holy See v. John Doe, which allows the case to proceed in an Oregon court. Brought by infamous sex-abuse lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, the case involves allegations of abuse against a priest, Fr. Andrew Ronan, who died in 1992.
There are two surprising and disturbing aspects to the Court's decision. Lower federal courts have accepted Anderson's arguments that the Vatican, though a sovereign state, is not covered by the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, and that priests should be considered employees of the Vatican, rather than of their dioceses. (In a similar case in Kentucky, a lawyer has made the argument that bishops are employees of the Vatican, in order to try to convince a federal judge to allow him to force Pope Benedict XVI to give a deposition.)
The Court's decision swings the door wide open for Anderson and his ilk to continue to name the Vatican as a defendant in every sexual-abuse lawsuit they file against a diocese. As Anderson once famously declared, "I'm suing the shit out of [the Catholic Church] everywhere . . . "
The idea that a U.S. court could have jurisdiction over a foreign state is ridiculous on its face, and anyone who knows anything about the structure of the Catholic Church could testify that priests are not employees of the Vatican. Why, then, did the Supreme Court let the lower-court decision stand?
It's hard to tell, but I don't think we can rule out the possibility that the justices' religious background has something to do with it. Of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, six (John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor) are either practicing Catholics or Catholics by background.
Agreeing to hear this case would have opened the Court up to criticism that members are making decisions based on their religious affiliation rather than the law. In refusing to hear the case, however, the justices have fallen off the horse in the opposite direction. There is no justification for exempting one, and only one, sovereign state from the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.
Jeff Anderson is undoubtedly rubbing his hands in glee. The rapid decline in sexual-abuse cases since 1980 has made it harder and harder for him to find targets. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has given him license to start shooting at the biggest one of all.