Vatican City cannot be sued in European courts because it is a sovereign state, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, delivering a blow to victims of clergy sexual abuse seeking to bring claims against the Catholic Church’s highest authorities.
The ruling also upheld the Vatican’s defense that it cannot be held liable for the actions of priests and bishops in dioceses around the world. Its ruling came in a case brought by 24 Belgian, French and Dutch nationals who were sexually abused by priests when they were children. The plaintiffs are seeking to hold Belgian and Vatican church leaders accountable for the “structurally deficient manner in which the Church had dealt with the problem of sexual abuse within its ranks,” the court said in a news release.
After Belgian courts said they couldn’t sue the Vatican because the Holy See is a sovereign state, the plaintiffs turned to the Strasbourg rights court in 2017 and argued that they had been denied the right to sue. A seven-judge panel issued Tuesday’s decision with one judge writing a dissenting opinion. The plaintiffs can seek to appeal the ruling to a grand chamber, a rare session presided over by the rights court’s president and other top judges.
The dissenting opinion by Judge Darian Pavli buttresses the plaintiffs’ chances of getting a grand chamber hearing. Pavli faulted the Belgian courts for not adequately examining the plaintiffs’ claims that the Holy See may have been responsible for ordering Belgian bishops to cover up rape and molestation by clergy.
“The applicants submitted evidence 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.” He added: “None of these arguments by the applicants were addressed by the Belgian courts.”
“It is the most black day of their lives,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge said about his clients in a telephone interview. He said it was a huge disappointment that Europe’s human rights court found it acceptable for the Belgian courts to not allow the plaintiffs to present their evidence, which he said showed the Vatican was instructing its priests and bishops to not cooperate with investigators.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The Catholic Church has been rocked by reports of widespread sexual abuse in the United States, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and other countries. A report revealed at least 330,000 children within France’s Catholic Church institutions were sexually abused (Court House News).