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Three allowed to sue Vatican over sex abuse

Judge rules their claims can be made

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three men who claim childhood sexual abuse by priests can pursue damages from the Vatican in a negligence lawsuit, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

The ruling by US District Judge John G. Heyburn II lets the men pursue their claim that top church officials should have warned the public or local authorities of known or suspected sexual abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

William McMurry, the plaintiffs' attorney, said the ruling could open the way to take depositions of Vatican officials and to get copies of church records and documents.

"Our whole purpose is to hold the Vatican accountable," McMurry said.

"This is a significant decision that supports victims in clergy sexual abuse cases," said Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents multiple people who say they were sexually abused by priests. "The judge has slightly opened the door for victims to proceed against Vatican officials."

Vatican officials declined to comment.

Many lawsuits stemming from the clergy sex abuse crisis have named the pope, the Vatican, and other high-ranking church officials but have failed.

The Holy See is typically immune from the jurisdiction of US courts under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. Plaintiffs' lawyers who have sought to challenge that protection often could not serve Vatican officials with the papers, among other logistical problems.

McMurry is seeking to have the lawsuit certified as a class action, alleging thousands of victims exist nationwide. McMurry represented 243 sex abuse victims that settled with the Archdiocese of Louisville in 2003 for $25.3 million.

The lawsuit seeks unspecific damages.

One of the three plaintiffs is Michael Turner of Louisville, who also filed the first lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Louisville. Turner was molested by the Rev. Louis E. Miller in the 1970s while attending St. Aloysius Church in Pewee Valley.

Miller was removed from the priesthood last year by the late Pope John Paul II after pleading guilty in 2003 to sexually abusing Turner and other children in Kentucky. He is serving a 13-year prison sentence.

The other two plaintiffs, James H. O'Bryan and Donald E. Poppe, have not settled with any diocese, McMurry has said. Both live in California and allege that they were abused by priests while growing up in Louisville.

O'Bryan contends he was abused by a "Father Lawrence" at St. Cecilia Church in western Louisville in 1928. An archdiocesan spokeswoman has said a Rev. Lawrence Kuntz worked at St. Cecelia from 1928 to 1935 and died in 1952.

Poppe alleges he was molested by the Rev. Arthur Wood, who died in 1983 and was named as an abuser by 39 plaintiffs who settled with the archdiocese.

A ruling in Oregon in the spring that an accused priest could be considered a Vatican employee has been appealed.