A Legal Challenge to the Vatican's Immunity Claim

The Catholic Church has settled hundreds of alleged cases of sexual abuse by priests. But the Vatican—a walled corner of Rome commonly recognized as a sovereign nation—has remained immune from lawsuits. Now that "sovereign immunity" protection may be in jeopardy. Federal appeals courts in Kentucky and Oregon ruled recently that the Vatican may be vulnerable. And last month, in a separate action, the plaintiff's lawyer in the Oregon case sued the Holy See in a Wisconsin court for, among other things, access to the Vatican's private files on sex offenders.

If the promise of secret documents sounds attention grabbing, that may be on purpose: the Supreme Court is expected to announce soon if it will review the Holy See's immunity claim, and another high-profile case only increases the chances that it will, say some legal experts. "In the court of public opinion," says Jeffrey Lena, who represents the Holy See, the opposition "is doing a very effective job." But victims' lawyers are also gambling. The high court could help them chip away at the pope's immunity in cases of alleged abuse committed under his watch. More likely, since the court reverses most appeals cases it hears, years of legal progress will be lost.