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Published on Tuesday April 26, 2011 - 9:48 AM
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SALEM, Oregon - In a first-of-its-kind ruling, an Oregon federal judge has ordered the Vatican to produce documents involving a dead priest accused of sexually assaulting a boy in the 1960s. A ruling could set a precedent for a similar case in Milwaukee.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman issued the narrow decision to determine whether Father Andrew Ronan was an employee of the Vatican at the time of the abuse - a key question in deciding whether the court has jurisdiction to hear the case on its merits.

"The plaintiff has proffered evidence that tends to show the Holy See knew of Ronan's propensities and that, in some cases ... exercised direct control over ... priests accused of similar sexual misconduct," Mosman said.

Lawyers for the Oregon victim, identified in court records as John V. Doe, called Thursday's ruling groundbreaking and said it addresses the same issues raised in the Milwaukee case involving the late Father Lawrence Murphy, a serial pedophile believed to have molested hundreds of deaf boys over decades.

"It's huge. That's the very claim we're making in Milwaukee, and it's a door that's never been opened before," said St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeffrey Anderson.

Whether Mosman can compel the Vatican to produce the records was not clear Monday.

"The relationship between sovereign nations is so much more political than legal," said Lisa LaPonte, a visiting professor who teaches international law at Marquette University Law School. "Is the U.S. going to go after the Holy See for not handing over discovery documents? I kind of doubt it.

"It's not like in the U.S., where the government can compel cooperation," she said.

Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena did not immediately return telephone calls and emails seeking comment. He told The Associated Press that the implications of the decision are not yet known.

"As a factual matter, Ronan was not a Holy See employee, and the Holy See was not aware of Ronan's misconduct until after Ronan had abused the plaintiff," Lena said in a statement.

Mosman gave the Vatican 60 days to answer a series of questions and produce all documents related to Ronan, as well as general documents detailing its policies on such matters as the removal, relocation and treatment of priests.

Mosman rejected the requests for a number of other documents, including those involving priests not named in the case.

"Some of these broad requests appear to be based on little more than a hunch that might yield valuable or embarrassing information about the Holy See and other instances of sexual abuse," he said.

The Vatican maintains that it is protected from prosecution by sovereign immunity. However, U.S. law limits that protection in cases where a foreign entity has a commercial interest or has engaged in a wrongful act.

Mosman said the Holy See has refused to say whether it knew of Ronan's abuse or played a role in his training, education, transfers or removal. It has pointed instead to documents provided by Ronan's order showing that it was his employer. But Mosman ruled that one did not preclude the other - a finding that could be relevant in the Milwaukee case where the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had employed Murphy.