(CNSNews.com) - In an ever-expanding round of lawsuits, a prominent sex abuse attorney has included the Vatican as a defendant in a racketeer lawsuit against four American dioceses and former Florida Bishop Anthony O'Connell.
"We filed a lawsuit naming several dioceses and bishops of racketeers in an ongoing conspiracy to conceal child sexual abuse," Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn. attorney who has filed 450 clergy abuse cases around the country, told CNSNews.com.
"We also named the Vatican as in part responsible for the racketeering activity," Anderson said.
The suit alleging violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court. The suit named the Catholic dioceses of Kansas City, West Palm Beach, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Jefferson City, Mo., as defendants.
RICO is aimed primarily at organized crime but includes provisions for civil cases.
This is the third suit against O'Connell, the former rector of the St. Thomas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo.
Anderson submitted documentary evidence of payments O'Connell allegedly made to his victims to buy their silence. With several victims, the abuse began in the early 1990s when O'Connell was bishop of the diocese of Knoxville, and later when he was bishop of Palm Beach, Anderson charged.
Payments to three victims amounted to almost $200,000 over years, he said. The settlements were conducted with the knowledge of the bishops in the locations named in the lawsuit.
"Each of those bishops engaged in a pattern of racketeering to obstruct justice to keep it a secret and to buy silence," Anderson said.
The new lawsuits came as Pope John Paul II summoned all 13 U.S. cardinals to Rome next week for an unprecedented closed-door summit on the burgeoning sexual abuse scandal in the United States.
The Vatican has indicated that the pope intended to leave the crisis in the hands of American bishops and some observers were stunned when the pope called cardinals at such short notice.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said the fact that the pope is holding the conference indicates that he understands the gravity of the situation.
But Donohue cautioned against raising hopes of a quick fix for what he sees as a problem that is deeply rooted in the dominant culture and institutionally mishandled by the Catholic Church.
"The fundamental problem is a lack of discipline," he said. "There are some who say that a bishop cannot afford to lose a priest. It is high time to ask whether they can afford to keep some of them."
The scandals have precipitated a crisis of confidence among rank-and-file Catholics, and calls for the resignations of the cardinal-archbishops of Boston and New York.
The scandals were fueled by reports in January that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston knowingly transferred priests with histories of molesting youths from parish to parish.
"There's no question but that Cardinal Law is one of the bishops who has over the years clearly known and clearly concealed wrongdoing by predator priests and that he is one of those named and implicated in this racketeering conspiracy," Anderson said.
Earlier this week, attorneys said 450 more people have come forward claiming priests in the Boston area sexually abused them. These are in addition to 86 victims of a former Boston priest who reached an out-of-court settlement with the Boston diocese last month.
On Wednesday, a Boston judge ruled that Cardinal Law must submit to questions about his handling of a priest accused of molestation. A man claimed the cardinal and the Boston Archdiocese failed to protect him from sexual abuse by Fr. Paul Shanley.
Anderson declined to speculate on where the lawsuits could lead.
"I just know that the problems we are facing - and that these lawsuits are designed to get at - are hierarchical and they implicate the highest officials of the Catholic Church in both America and in Rome, and until both the bishops and the pope deal with this problem definitively, it will continue to be a problem and I will continue to work with courageous survivors to address it," he said.
U.S. bishops, who will meet in Dallas in June, reportedly are preparing new initiatives to address the problem.
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