European court rules Vatican cannot be sued in local courts over clerical abuse

Cupola of St. Peter's Cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City/ CNA

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that the Vatican cannot be sued in local courts for the actions of clerical abusers because it has sovereign immunity.

The international court that interprets the European Convention on Human Rights issued the ruling on Oct. 12. It is the first time that the court has considered a case touching on the Holy See’s immunity.

A Chamber of seven judges decided by six votes to one that courts in Belgium did not violate Article 6 § 1 of the convention, on the right of access to a court, when they declined jurisdiction in respect of the Vatican.

The case, known as J.C. and Others v. Belgium, was brought by 24 Belgian, French, and Dutch nationals against the Vatican, as well as Catholic leaders and associations in Belgium.

The applicants, who said they were sexually abused by Catholic priests as children, sought to bring a civil action against the Vatican, arguing that it had addressed clerical abuse in a “structurally deficient manner.”

An Oct. 12 ECHR press release said: “The Court found that the dismissal of the proceedings by the Belgian courts in declining jurisdiction to hear the tort case brought by the applicants against the Holy See had not departed from the generally recognized principles of international law in matters of state immunity, and the restriction on the right of access to a court could not therefore be regarded as disproportionate to the legitimate aims pursued.”

The Chamber’s ruling is not final and can be referred within three months to the court’s Grand Chamber, where a panel of five judges would decide whether to hear the case and offer a final judgment.

If the Grand Chamber rejected the referral request then the Chamber’s ruling would become final.

The applicants filed a class action in the Court of First Instance in Ghent, northwest Belgium, in July 2011.

They asked that the defendants be held jointly and severally liable for their suffering caused by priests and members of religious orders, seeking compensation of 10,000 euros (around $11,500) each.

The court declined jurisdiction in respect of the Holy See in October 2013.

The Ghent Court of Appeal upheld the judgment in February 2016. In August of that year, a lawyer at the Court of Cassation said that an appeal to the supreme court of the Belgian judicial system was unlikely to succeed.

Twenty of the claimants obtained compensation via an arbitration center for sexual abuse claims within the Church. Four did not apply.

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.”

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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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