LOUISVILLE — It had been more than 80 years since James O'Bryan stepped inside a Roman Catholic church. He hadn't attended Mass since the late 1920s, when he says he was fondled at age 7 by a priest at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Louisville.
O'Bryan is one of three men who filed a U.S. lawsuit regarded as having the best chance of discovering whether the Vatican holds any liability in sexual abuse by American priests. He and others not involved with the suit also see an opportunity for Rome to reconnect with American victims who lost their faith after being abused.
"I've been trying to reconcile this thing in my head all these years," said O'Bryan. "I've completely lost my faith, until recently."
At 89, O'Bryan just recently began attending services at a tiny Catholic church near his Mendocino, Calif., home after his wife died in January.
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"We need to know the truth, and maybe more important than us needing to know the truth, the hierarchy needs to know that secrecy is not acceptable — it's not God's way," said Colleen Powell, who was abused by her Catholic priest at her childhood church near Dayton, Ohio. She is part of a vocal victims group called SNAP and lives in Louisville.
The Vatican has asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing in May that Rome does not exercise "day-to-day control" over U.S. bishops.
"After six years of litigation, it is time to put this case to rest," Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena wrote in the motion. Last month, Lena argued in another filing that a suit against the Archdiocese of Louisville — settled in 2003 for $25 million — had turned up no connection between the archdiocese's handling of abusive priests and the Vatican.
The suit remains in court at a time when Rome has taken more public steps to address the scandal and there is a fresh wave of reports of abuse around the world.
Earlier in June, Pope Benedict XVI asked for absolution from abuse victims while in a significant setting: in front of thousands of Roman Catholic priests attending Mass in St. Peter's Square.
"We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," Benedict said.The Kentucky suit argues in part that U.S. bishops should be considered employees or officials of the Holy See. The church has countered with court filings from officials in the Louisville archdiocese that seek to demonstrate independence from Rome.
"The Holy See in no sense exercised the requisite operational day-to-day control over the archbishop, including the archbishop's supervision of the priests at issue," the Vatican argued in the May 17 motion filed in U.S. District Court.
Kim Richardson bristles when she hears the argument that American archdioceses acted without Vatican input when deciding how to handle abusive priests.
"That is crazy to even assume that they are not responsible or connected," said Richardson, who said she was abused as a child while she lived in a Kentucky Catholic orphanage. She is not part of the Kentucky suit.
Louisville attorney William McMurry, who reached the $25 million settlement with the Louisville archdiocese, also filed the Kentucky suit against the Vatican.
McMurry wants to find out how the Vatican reacted to Kentucky priest Louis Miller, who was removed from the priesthood in 2004. Miller pleaded guilty in 2003 to sexually abusing children in the 1970s. He is serving a 13-year prison sentence. McMurry says Miller abused 90 victims.
McMurry says he is "doing what any lawyer trained in representing injured people would do: that is, hold the perpetrator accountable."
"In the case of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church in the United States, the buck stops with the policy maker, and that's the Holy See," he said.
Lena, the Vatican attorney, counters that McMurry "has turned the files of the archdiocese inside out, and he knows that there's no t a shred of evidence that the Holy See supervised the Louisville priests."
"For years Bill has been making public statements based on allegations of Holy See involvement," said Lena, who is based in Berkeley, Calif. "It is now time for him to acknowledge to the public that there is nothing in the Louisville files implicating the Holy See."
Legal experts say the Kentucky suit faces several obstacles, including how to demonstrate that U.S. bishops are employees and official representatives of the Vatican, which is considered both a church and a sovereign nation. A similar suit in Oregon that claims priests are Vatican employees moved forward last week after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See.
"The employment (question) is going to be a difficult one to resolve because (the court is) essentially writing on a blank slate here," said Scott Bauries, a law professor at the University of Kentucky and an expert on labor and employment law.
Federal Judge John G. Heyburn agreed in a 2007 ruling on the suit, writing that the employer/employee determination "is not an easy question to answer," but added that it would "appear to be a question of Kentucky state law."
Bauries said it will be difficult to use state employee/employer standards to define a bishop's job.
"They're doing something that's very highly skilled in a different kind of way," Bauries said of the bishop's work. "It's not the kind of thing that's subject to day-to-day direction."
Bauries and other lawyers said the 6-year-old lawsuit could take several years to resolve.
O'Bryan said he might not live to see that, but he hopes for more communication between the Vatican and American victims.
"I've not already healed, but I'm in the process," O'Bryan said. "There must be thousands and thousands like me who need the Vatican to do this thing. And that starts with the pope."