Pope Francis May Have Just Accidentally Saved My Church by Bankrupting It

Imagine if a drug company had released a new medicine — let’s say, a vaccine — that turned out to have horrible side-effects such as (for the sake of argument) deadly myocarditis, which devastates people’s hearts. When it came out that the drug company knew all about those side-effects, and had energetically worked to cover them up from the government and its customers, the company got sued.

Now, of course I’m not talking about Pfizer or Moderna, which were idiotically immunized from any liability for making the Dead Baby Vaccine. No, I’m talking about a totally imaginary company, in an alternative timeline where the government didn’t exempt drug companies from liability for killing people. Let’s call it … Schmizer.

In this fantasy world, Schmizer gets hits with billions of dollars in lawsuits. If they succeed — as most of them should — it would bankrupt the global company. But it turns out thanks to a quirk in American corporate law, pharmaceutical companies aren’t treated the same as other corporations. Each city or region’s branch of the corporation is considered legally totally independent. So each branch can pay part of the damages, then when it runs out of money simply declare bankruptcy. Schmizer Global, which is headquartered in Rome, cannot be touched. It keeps all its billions in assets, and the victims don’t get their money.

Schmizer Global chugs along as if nothing had happened.

I think you’ll agree, even if you happened to own some stock in Schmizer Global, that an injustice had been done.

The Class Action Suit Against the Vatican

Now in the above example plug in instead of “Schmizer” the Roman Catholic Church. And plug in for “vaccine” the words “clerical sex abuse.” And that’s what happened in the sex abuse crisis. The Vatican was able to claim that it didn’t actually control the sex abuse policies, or even the leadership, of Catholic churches in the U.S. (and other countries). Therefore it couldn’t be held legally liable for the shuffling of thousands of priests who abused adolescent (and pre-adolescent) boys in thousands of parishes worldwide. Those dioceses could simply go bankrupt (as the Archdiocese of San Francisco just did) and the victims have no further recourse.

In 2009, a landmark class action lawsuit by victims of clerical sex abuse tried to hold “Schmizer Global” liable. Here are some quotes from a summary of Bryan v. Holy See:

On June 4, 2004, plaintiffs, who claim to have been victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, filed a class action suit against the Holy See. The Holy See is both a foreign state and an unincorporated association and the central government of an international religious organization, the Roman Catholic Church. The United States has recognized the Holy See as a foreign sovereign since 1984. According to their complaint, plaintiffs consist of representatives for two separate classes.

James H. O’Bryan and Donald E. Poppe serve as the representatives of Class I, which “consists of all persons who have not previously brought claims against an agent or servant of the Defendant, Holy See, in the United States, arising out of sexual abuse he or she suffered at the hands of a Roman Catholic priest, cleric, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, agent or employee․”

Plaintiffs’ claims regarding the liability of the Holy See stem, in large part, from their allegations regarding the purported policy of the Holy See towards accusations of sexual abuse leveled against clergy:

‘[T]he Holy See has mandated that all allegations of childhood sexual abuse be kept under a cloak of complete secrecy, even if that secrecy violated state, federal, or international law. In March, 1962, the Holy See privately circulated a document containing a set of procedural norms for dealing with the solicitation of sex in confession, clergy sex with minors, homosexual relations, and bestiality. This document [the “1962 Policy”] — an official legislative text issued by the Congregation of the Holy Office and specifically approved by Pope John XXIII — imposes the highest level of secrecy on the handling of clergy sexual abuse matters․

This secret document was first discovered and made public in July, 2003 by news media in the United States and throughout the world. The policies of the Holy See expressed in this and other documents require bishops in the United States to, among other things, refuse to report childhood sexual abuse committed by priests to criminal or civil authorities, even where such failure to report would itself be a criminal offense.’

The lawsuit could have bankrupted the Vatican, forcing the fire sale of such priceless assets as the Vatican’s vast art collection, real estate portfolio, and other global investments (which include a scandal-plagued bank).

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