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US says pope has immunity in suit alleging coverup

ROME -- The US Justice Department has told a Texas court that a lawsuit accusing Pope Benedict XVI of conspiring to cover up the sexual molestation of three boys by a seminarian should be dismissed because the pontiff has immunity as head of state of the Holy See.

Assistant US Attorney General Peter Keisler said in a filing Monday that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would be ''incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests."

There was no immediate ruling from Judge Lee Rosenthal of the US District Court for the southern district of Texas in Houston. However, US courts have been bound by such ''suggestion of immunity" motions submitted by the government, Keisler's filing says.

A 1994 lawsuit against Pope John Paul II, also filed in Texas, was dismissed after the US government filed a similar motion.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit by three plaintiffs who allege that Juan Carlos Patino-Arango, a Colombian-born seminarian on assignment at St. Francis de Sales church in Houston, molested them during counseling sessions in the church in the mid-1990s.

Patino-Arango has been indicted in a criminal case by a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, and is a fugitive from justice.

The lawsuit alleges Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope, was involved in a conspiracy to hide Patino-Arango's crimes and help him escape prosecution.

The lawsuit cites a May 18, 2001, letter from Ratzinger written in Latin to bishops around the world, explaining that ''grave" crimes such as the sexual abuse of minors would be handled by his congregation and that the proceedings of special church tribunals handling the cases were subject to ''pontifical secret."

Daniel Shea, attorney for one of the plaintiffs, has said such secret proceedings amounted to a conspiracy to cover up the crimes.

The Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have insisted the secret church procedures in the sex abuse case were not designed to cover up abuse nor to prevent victims from reporting crimes to law enforcement. The document deals with church law, not keeping secrets from secular authorities, they say. The pope's lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, said yesterday it was ''appropriate" the Justice Department had determined the pope was ''the sitting head of state of the Holy See."

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