A federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco on Wednesday accuses the Vatican of actively covering up sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and aims to uncover the names and files of some 3,400 perpetrators.
Two survivors of clerical sexual abuse, represented by the Minnesota-based law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates, are suing the Vatican — which is a sovereign nation and generally protected from such lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act — for violating international human rights law, among other things.
“When you are engaged in the international violation of human rights, which is the torture of children and permitting children to be violated and raped worldwide… that is an intentional violation of human rights and that is an exception to the sovereign nation status,” said lead attorney Jeff Anderson.
“Thus we have some confidence that…we can get a court order that requires them to come clean and begin the dislodgement of all these dangerous secrets,” he said.
The lawsuit follows a report released by the firm on Tuesday that implicates over 200 Bay Area clergy in alleged sexual misconduct. More than half of the names listed as part of that report — or 135 — belong to clergy in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
The legal action is the result of a decades-long investigation into the sexual misconduct and alleged cover-up. The complaint alleges predators within the church’s ranks were intentionally transferred “from parish to parish or to other countries in an attempt to cover up” crimes, and in order to hide names from the public they were protected by two separate decrees issued by the Vatican that still stands today.
“In 1962 the then pope issued an order demanding absolute secrecy — that any sexual abuse or suspicion of sexual abuse is required to remain secret at every single diocese and at the Vatican,” said Anderson. “In 2001, a decree was issued from the Vatican that says every report of abuse by every cleric or superior is now to be housed at the Vatican.”
The decrees are still “rigorously applied today,” said Anderson, whose firm has made previous unsuccessful attempts to sue the Vatican.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has not released any names of accused clergy, confirmed spokesperson Mike Brown — at least not yet.
“The Archbishop is conducting a series of town hall meetings with..consultants, trying to hear what they think he should be doing and concerned with,” said Brown, adding that he is expected to make a decision on “the course of action” and whether a list of names “will be included” by the end of November.
“There is a bishop’s meeting in November and the crisis will be the only agenda item,” said Brown.
A separate lawsuit was filed earlier this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking to hold California bishops responsible for abusive priests. Brown said that the Archdiocese of San Francisco has yet to be served.
In regard to Anderson & Associate’s report, Brown said that the Archdiocese would “look at it hard,” but questioned the law firm’s sources.
One of those sources is one of the recent lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Bay Area native Kathy Stonebraker, who alleges in the lawsuit that she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused for a three-year period starting at age 11 by Father Stephen Kiesle, a former Roman Catholic Priest with the Archdiocese of Oakland.
“I’m a survivor and I have got to help the kids of yesterday,” Stonebraker said.
In 1981, former Oakland Diocese Bishop John Cummins petitioned the Pope to remove Kiesle as a priest, who was arrested for sexual abuse of six minors, but faced pushback from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was later appointed as Pope Benedict XVI, said Mike Reck, an attorney with Anderson & Associates.
“He instructs Bishop Cummins to not remove Kiesle because the priest was too young, it was too early in his career, and he didn’t want to create a scandal,” said Reck. “ So Kiesle continued to stay in ministry for years — the Archdiocese of Oakland kept him as a youth coordinator in 1988.”
The other plaintiff in the lawsuit, Minnesota native and sexual abuse survivor Jim Keenan, has been legally fighting the Catholic Church for 14 years in an effort to stop the “practice of secrecy” by the Vatican.
“If we knew that the waiters at a local restaurant always fondled kids as they went into the restroom, would anybody go to that restaurant? They would go out of business,” said Keenan. “But somehow, these men in church over decades and hundreds of year have come to the conclusion that they are above the law.”
Keenan said he has come forward to ensure children’s safety and for “pure transparency.”
“They need to come clean — they know what they do, they, now what they’ve done and they know what they plan to do,” said Keenan. “And I know in my heart that their plan is not to do the right thing.”