A Mexico City man can proceed with a clergy abuse lawsuit filed in U.S. court against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, even though the alleged abuse occurred in Mexico and the priest and plaintiff are Mexican citizens, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton Tucker on Friday denied a motion from church attorneys who had sought dismissal of the case by arguing U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction.
Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the archdiocese, said the case has no merit and would ultimately be dismissed.
The unusual lawsuit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 and alleges that recently retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and his counterpart in the Mexican Diocese of Tehuacan conspired to protect the priest and help him avoid authorities on both sides of the border.
Jeff Anderson, the plaintiff's attorney, said Monday that the priest abused as many as 60 children in Mexico, including the plaintiff, after fleeing U.S. authorities who wanted to arrest him in 1988 for suspected molestations in Los Angeles.
The head of the Mexican diocese, then-Bishop Norberto Rivera, has since been elevated to cardinal for the Archdiocese of Mexico City.
The complaint lists 10 causes of action, including rape and crimes against humanity under the 222-year-old law. The Tehuacan diocese, Mahony and the Mexican cardinal are also listed as defendants.
The case involves the Rev. Nicholas Aguilar Rivera, who was sent from Mexico to Los Angeles for a temporary assignment in 1987. Less than a year after his arrival, two altar boys accused Aguilar Rivera of molestation, but the priest fled to Mexico just days before U.S. authorities charged him.
The lawsuit states that in 1987 the Mexican bishop contacted Mahony and asked him to take Aguilar Rivera in for a year due to family and health reasons.
The bishop later introduced the priest to Mahony with a letter that mentioned Aguilar Rivera had been brutally attacked in his Mexican parish, possibly because of problems of homosexuality that had not been proven, according to the lawsuit.
Mahony has said he never received letters from the Mexican bishop explaining the priest's history.
Aguilar Rivera was defrocked in 2009 and remains at large in Mexico, where he was believed to be living out of his car in Puebla, in central Mexico. He has been wanted by U.S. authorities on 19 felony counts of lewd conduct since he returned to Mexico.
The ruling in Los Angeles could allow more of Mexican plaintiffs who allege abuse by Aguilar Rivera to file lawsuits in U.S. courts, Anderson said.
"This does open a door that has never been opened before," he said.
The judge was not required to consider the facts of the case when making her ruling about jurisdiction and limited her analysis to a narrow range of legal issues, Hennigan said. Church attorneys will file new court papers seeking dismissal on other legal grounds, he said.
Mahony was not aware the priest had a history of sexual abuse when he accepted him in Los Angeles and he asked the Mexican bishop for help in finding the priest once he was a fugitive, the attorney said.
"We think the court is suggesting _ and we agree _ that this needs to be addressed on the merits of the case and we will attempt to do that," Hennigan said.
A spokesman for Cardinal Norberto Rivera, who is no relation to the priest, said the Mexican archbishop had done nothing wrong.
Judges have thrown out two previous lawsuits filed against him in the U.S., saying a Mexican citizen cannot sue another Mexican citizen in U.S. court. Mahony settled his portion of an earlier lawsuit in 2007.
"We have responded to U.S. courts. We did it once, we did it twice (and) we do not intend to continue doing so," said Rev. Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico. "Cardinal Rivera has already said he did not cover up for this priest."
Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.