On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Vatican is a sovereign state and cannot be sued in European courts. This confirms the long-held stance by the Holy See that the pope and Vatican state officials are shielded by state immunity. They also cannot be held accountable for the actions of priests and bishops in dioceses around the world.
The Vatican has long enjoyed diplomatic immunity after signing the Lateran Treaties with Benito Mussolini in 1929. This established the Vatican as an independent city within Italy and granted Roman Catholicism special status.
The case was brought forth by 24 French, Belgian and Dutch nationals, claiming Catholic priests sexually abused them as children.
Victims initially sought a Belgian court to award them €10,000 ($11,600) each in damages in the class-action lawsuit, but the court claimed it had no jurisdiction over the Holy See. Because both the case and the appeal were denied, the plaintiffs argued they had been deprived of access to a court.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge said, “There was a clear politic coming out of the Vatican to remain silent, to not work with the investigations, to hide and protect the priests abusing children. The Belgian courts never analyzed our documents, our claims, because they were saying you can’t come here into the courts because the Holy See has immunity.”
All but one judge on the European Court of Human Rights agreed with the Belgian court that they don’t have jurisdiction over the Vatican or its employees.
They said in a statement, “The Court did not find anything unreasonable or arbitrary in the detailed reasoning which led the Court of Appeal to reach that conclusion. It pointed out that it had itself previously characterized agreements between the Holy See and other States as international treaties.”
Judge Darian Pavli was the only judge to disagree. In his dissenting opinion, Pavli knocked the Belgian court for refusing to hear evidence brought by the plaintiffs. Evidence that may reveal the Holy See is not only looking the other way when sexual abuse scandals arise — they may have been ordering the cover-up of rape and molestation directly.
“The applicants submitted evidence purportedly showing that the Holy See had sent a letter to all Catholic bishops worldwide in 1962 that mandated a ‘code of silence’ regarding cases of sexual abuse within the Church, on pain of excommunication,” Pavli wrote. “Pope Francis himself has in recent years acknowledged a ‘culture of abuse and cover-up’ within the Catholic Church.”
The judgment is not yet final as any party to the case has three months to request that it be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court.
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