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      Vatican defends pope in US lawsuit

      VATICAN CITY (AP) " Dragged deeper than ever before into the clerical sex abuse scandal, the Vatican is launching a legal defense that the church hopes will shield the pope from a lawsuit in Kentucky seeking to have him deposed.

      In court documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, Vatican lawyers map out a three-pronged strategy " to be formally filed in coming weeks " seeking to dismiss the suit before Benedict XVI can be questioned or secret documents subpoenaed.

      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 cover up, the documents reveal.

      Three men claiming they were abused by priests brought the suit against the Holy See in 2004, accusing Rome of negligence in failing to alert police or the public about priests who molested children in Kentucky.

      The preview of the legal defense, provided to the AP by a person familiar with the case, was submitted last month in the U.S. District Court in Louisville. Vatican officials declined to comment.

      The case is significant because it's the first among a handful of cases targeting Rome in the United States to reach the stage of determining whether the victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself.

      Previous cases attempting to implicate the Vatican have failed or are pending at more preliminary stages.

      In the Kentucky suit, the men argued that U.S. diocesan bishops were employees of the Holy See, and that Rome was therefore responsible for their alleged wrongdoing in failing to report abuse.

      They charged that a 1962 Vatican document mandated that bishops not report sex abuse cases to police. The Vatican has argued that there is nothing in the document that precluded bishops from reporting pedophiles to police.

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