The group lodged an application with the ECHR on Feb. 2, 2017, arguing that by acknowledging the Holy See’s state immunity from jurisdiction the local courts had prevented them from asserting their civil claims.
The ECHR judges acknowledged that the Holy See was “recognized internationally as having the common attributes of a foreign sovereign,” noting that it has diplomatic relations with some 185 states worldwide.
The Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Belgium date back to 1832.
The judges noted that the applicants had argued for an exception to the immunity rule applying to proceedings connected to “an action for pecuniary compensation in the event of the death or physical injury of a person, or in the event of damage to or loss of tangible property.”
The Court of Appeal had dismissed the exception on several grounds, the ECHR press release said. The court said that Belgian bishops’ misconduct could not be attributed to the Holy See as the pope was not “the principal in relation to the bishops” and the Vatican’s alleged misconduct was committed in Rome rather than Belgium.
“It was not for the [ECHR] to substitute its own assessment for that of the national courts, since their assessment on this point had not been arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable,” the press release said.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Darian Pavli of Albania questioned why the Belgian courts had “accepted wholesale” the contention that “there was no principal/agent relationship between the Holy See and the bishops.”
“Domestic courts have an obligation to adequately set out the factual and legal reasons for their decision. In my view, the Belgian courts failed to do so in relation to the claim of vicarious liability, and I would therefore have found a violation of Article 6 of the Convention in this case,” Pavli wrote.
The Holy See has responded successfully to similar cases in U.S. courts.
A federal judge in Portland, Oregon, dismissed a sex abuse lawsuit against the Holy See in 2012 on the grounds that the Vatican was not an employer of an accused ex-priest and could not be held financially liable for the abuse.
Jeffrey Lena, counsel for the Holy See, described the ruling in the case known as Doe v. Holy See as “particularly important.”
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