European Court Upheld Vatican Diplomatic Immunity over Sex Abuse Victims

On Tuesday, October 12, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Vatican can not be charged in European courts because of its sovereign status. The human rights court in Europe dismissed the suit submitted by a group of clergy abuse survivors, citing that the Vatican is a country with Diplomatic Immunity.

24 French and Dutch individuals filed a class-action lawsuit in the Court of First Instance in Ghent, Belgium, in 2011. According to the initial case, the victims claimed that they were all subjected to sexual abuse by Catholic priests when they were children. The plaintiff claims that the Holy See should pay 10 thousand euros in compensation, citing the "Catholic Church's policy of silence on the issue of sexual abuse."

In 2013, the Ghent Court of First Instance dismissed the 2011 case. EuroNews reported that the Belgian court's decision was based on the Vatican's "state privileges under international law," giving it diplomatic immunity. The Ghent Court of Appeals upheld the Court of First Instance's decision in 2016.

In 2017, the group appealed the Belgian court's decision to the ECHR. J.C. and Others v. Belgium expanded the defendants, including the Vatican, Catholic leaders, and Catholic Associations in Belgium.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Strasbourg Court Chamber agreed to the Belgian court's ruling, adding that Pope Francis is not a principal of the Catholic church's bishop. ECHR said that the "misconduct attributed directly to the Holy See hadn't been committed on Belgian territory but in Rome." "Neither the pope nor the Holy See had been present on Belgian territory when the misconduct attributed to the church's leaders in Belgium had been committed," the ECHR statement added.

The ECHR's ruling has created a more profound chasm between the Catholic faithful and the Vatican's ongoing dilemma with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. On October 5, a disturbing report was released by an independent commission headed by Jean-Marc Sauve. The report documented more than 3 thousand individual cases of sexual abuse by the Catholic priests and clergy.

Pope Francis called the French report a "moment of shame" but has not shown any conclusive plan to address the abuses.

ECHR's decision ruled that the Ghent court did not violate article 6 and article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.ECHR argued that the Ghent court in Belgium did "not departed from the generally recognized principles of international law in matters of state immunity." 

A final appeal is still available for the plaintiff, moving higher to ECHR's 5-member Grand Chamber, where the decision can be absolute.

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