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April 16, 2008 10:30 AM

Street Closures, Venue Contracts, And Souvenirs Just Some of the Issues Lawyers Handle During Papal Visit

Posted by Brian Baxter

In his 20 years as general counsel to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—the principal organizing entity for the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.—D.C. lawyer Mark Chopko worked on four papal visits (and one cancelled one), handling everything from contracts to constitutional matters.

With Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington, D.C., and New York this week marking the first papal visit to the U.S. in nine years, we checked in with Chopko, now chair of the nonprofit and religious organizations practice group at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, to see how the lawyers are staying busy.

What does an in-house USCCB lawyer do for such a visit?

It’s a large-scale, public event involving a world leader who is also a religious leader, and it creates a whole series of legal issues. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1987, people filed lawsuits trying to limit his or event planners’ access to different venues, all of which were unsuccessful. Back in 1979 [on Pope John Paul’s first U.S. visit] the City of Philadelphia built an altar on Logan Circle and the Third Circuit ruled that that violated the Establishment Clause. But closing the streets, public safety, those sorts of concerns and expenses are legitimate and we dealt with them at the city and district court level.

There are contract issues, too, with venues, concessionaires, and souvenir makers. There may be IP issues if you come up with a logo. Pope John Paul’s view was that he wouldn’t copyright his image. But he was very reluctant to be photographed with any advertising behind him—imagine a picture of the Pope standing in front of a Pepsi sign with his arms up waving to the crowd.

Sounds like an advertiser’s dream. Anything else?

There are insurance issues. Around 1994 or 1995, Pope John Paul [had hip surgery] and had to cancel his trip to the U.S. We had cancellation insurance but the [insurers came back to us and said], “Well, we saw the Pope back at work, so how sick could he have been?”

I see that Pope Benedict is scheduled to speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Saturday about [the sex abuse scandals].

[Pope Benedict has] actually strengthened the Church’s internal disciplinary process dealing with sex crimes against young people. No longer can these claims be resolved at the local level . . . if there’s a credible complaint, it has to be referred to a congregation in Rome that makes an assessment on how the case might be resolved and [has the power] to summarily dismiss the offending cleric without the right of appeal. That has upset many in the church who claim it’s contrary to canon law.

Have you met Pope Benedict?

I met him about six years ago in Rome when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His reputation as an intellectual and a writer and thinker preceded him. He has an overpowering intellect and he certainly exuded that in the meeting.

How did you get the USCCB job?

Initially I went there because I needed a place to sit out my ethical conflicts with the U.S. government. I was a government power plant litigator trying to get into private practice but I had conflicts with the big utility companies. Under the Ethics in Government Act [of 1978], you have to sit out for 18–24 months before you can go back into that kind of work. I saw a blind ad in Legal Times that said a religious organization was looking for a litigator. [Legal Times is a sibling publication of The American Lawyer.]

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