October 2005 Church & State | People & Events

A major donor to President George W. Bush has just been rewarded with a plum as­signment: U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Laurence Francis Rooney III, a wealthy Florida businessman, was nominated in late July to assume the position of “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Holy See.” If confirmed by the Senate, Rooney will replace James Nichols, a former Republican Party official now running the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Rooney’s business, Rooney Holdings of Naples, Fla., was described by the Associated Press as “an investment company primarily dealing with construction and distributing building materials.” Like every U.S. Vatican ambassador to date, Rooney is a Roman Catholic.

Catholic News Service reported that Rooney and his wife in 2004 “contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns for Republicans, including Bush and candidates for House and Senate races around the country.” Rooney donated and raised so much money he qualified as a “Super Ranger,” a small class of elite donors who raised at least $300,000 for the Republican Party.

After Bush’s reelection, Rooney continued pouring money into the GOP’s cof­fers. His company sent $250,000, the maximum allowed under law, to underwrite the inaugural activities. Asked about the contribution, a Rooney spokes­man told Newsweek Rooney did it “simply because there was a lot of interest in attending.”

Rooney was later rewarded with a seat at a special dinner featuring Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law School, Rooney is a member of the Knights of Malta and is said to be active in several Catholic social organizations.

U.S. diplomatic ties with the Vatican date back to 1984, when the exchange was proposed by President Ronald W. Reagan. Americans United challenged the arrangement in federal court, but the lawsuit failed when a federal appeals court ruled AU did not have standing to sue the government over the matter.

A more recent lawsuit, however, may reopen the issue. Daniel Shea, a Texas attorney who is suing Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican alleging that the church covered up the sexual abuse of children, said he may be forced to challenge the Holy See’s diplomatic status as the lawsuit progresses.

Shea is suing on behalf of three anonymous Texas boys who assert that a Colombian seminarian, Carlos Patino-Arango, molested them in the mid 1990s while he was assigned to a church in Houston. Patino-Arango was indicted but has fled the country.

Shea maintains that the Vatican orchestrated efforts to help priests accused of child abuse escape secular authorities. He cites a letter Benedict wrote in 2001 when he was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger urging bishops worldwide to make certain that “grave” crimes such as child sexual abuse are handled by church tribunals. Shea said he hopes to depose the pope by year’s end.

Lawyers at the Vatican have insisted that Benedict cannot be sued because he has diplomatic immunity. In May, they filed documents in federal court asking that the case be dismissed. The motion states, “Because Defendant is head of a recognized state, he is absolutely immune from the jurisdiction of the United States Courts.”

Shea says it may be necessary to challenge that immunity in court.

“The Holy See is a church,” he told the Associated Press.