Pope John Paul Named In Lawsuits

The scandal over abusive priests and the Roman Catholic Church took a new turn today, with alleged victims in Florida and Oregon filing two separate lawsuits naming Pope John Paul II and the Vatican with conspiring to hide the priests they say molested them.

The lawsuits were filed by Minnesota-based attorney Jeffrey Anderson, of the firm Reinhardt and Anderson. Anderson, who has represented more than 400 alleged victims in lawsuits against church officials, did not name the plaintiff in the Portland, Ore., case.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., a tearful Rick Gomez told reporters on Wednesday how he was repeatedly molested by the Rev. William Burke in 1987. Gomez's lawsuit names the Holy See, the St. Petersburg diocese, Father Burke and his religious order, the Salesian Society.

Gomez, who now lives in California, claims that he was a 14-year-old student at a Tampa Catholic school when Father William Burke fondled him and engaged him in sexual acts on more than 30 occasions. Tampa is part of the St. Petersburg diocese.

In the documents and at the press conference, Gomez says he waited until he and his mother had moved to New Jersey in 1989 before telling her what had happened. She went to local police who contacted law-enforcement authorities in Tampa. Tampa police attempted to question Burke at the school, but were initially told to come back, according to the documents. When police did return, school officials told them that Burke had left the state. "They basically said, 'you want him, go find him'," says Tom McGowan, one of Gomez's attorneys.

Gomez claims in his lawsuit that the church hid Burke in New Jersey to avoid prosecution and public scandal. "It's been in the front of my mind every day since it [the molestation] happened," says Gomez. He further claims that the Catholic Church played a role in his molestation because it allowed Burke to remain at the Tampa school, Mary Help of Christians, after previous claims of sexual molestation involving other students had been reported to the church. According to the suit, an earlier case was settled for an unknown sum. Burke's current whereabouts are unknown.

This is the first time Anderson has named the pope in any lawsuit. The lawyer, who began representing plaintiffs in abuse actions against the church in the 1980s, says the two lawsuits naming the Vatican are the result of years of legal work. According to Anderson, the pope has issued a Latin directive to bishops to keep secret their records of any sexual misconduct charges against priests. "Every road leads to the Vatican," says Anderson.

Historically, suits against the pontiff have not been successful because church lawyers have argued that the Vatican is a country with diplomatic immunity. However, this case may test the boundaries of that immunity, McGowan says. "The church is hierarchical," McGowan says. "Nothing can be done without the permission of the bishops and the pope." Gomez's attorneys assert in the suit that this is not the first time the church has moved allegedly abusive priests to avoid prosecution.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has won millions of dollars in settlements from the Archdiocese of Boston stemming from allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, says Anderson will have to answer "serious evidentiary questions and jurisdictional issues" to succeed in his case against the Vatican. Garabedian--who is not involved in this case--told NEWSWEEK the lawyer would have to prove both that the pope had authority in these matters and that the alleged victims could sue an independent state. "That's more or less a matter of law," says Garabadian. "You just can't go off and sue Russia."

The St. Petersburg lawsuit comes on the heels of national and international claims of sexual misconduct by numerous priests and complaints that the church has not done enough to prevent them. In St. Petersburg alone, this is the third sexual allegation against the diocese to be made public in the last two weeks. Allegations that Bishop Robert N. Lynch sexually harassed a former diocese spokesman became public two weeks ago--several months after the diocese had settled the matter with a $100,000 payment to the alleged victim. Lynch has since denied the allegations and characterizes the payment as severance pay.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg responded today with a statement arguing that it was wrongly named in the lawsuit because Burke was still a brother--and not yet a priest--at the time of the alleged misconduct. This meant Burke and the school were not under the authority of the diocese at the time, said the statement.

In another development, the society that administers the school issued a separate statement apologizing for its failure to respond to victims' claims. "While we have generally sought to shield other young people from misconduct at the hands of accused Salesians, we have not always done so effectively," said the Very Rev. James Heuser of the Salesian of Don Bosco order. "We have sometimes failed to recognize that the victims have first priority ... We apologize for this further grievous indignity."