VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is launching a legal defense that it hopes will shield the pope from a lawsuit in Kentucky seeking to have him answer attorneys' questions under oath.
Court documents obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press show that Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren't employees of the Vatican and that a 1962 document is not the "smoking gun" that provides proof of a coverup.
The Holy See is trying to fend off the first U.S. case to reach the stage of determining whether victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Roman Catholic priests who molested children.
The case was filed in 2004 in Kentucky by three men who say they were abused by priests and claim negligence by the Vatican. Their attorney is seeking class-action status, saying there are thousands of victims. The Vatican is seeking to dismiss the suit before Benedict XVI can be questioned or documents subpoenaed.
The United States considers the Vatican a sovereign state. In 2007, U.S. District Judge John Heyburn rejected an initial request by the plaintiffs to depose Benedict.
"They will not be able to depose the pope," said Joseph Dellapenna, a professor at Villanova University Law School and an author of Suing Foreign Governments and their Corporations. "But lower level officials could very well be deposed and there could be subpoenas for documents as part of discovery."