European court rejects attempt to hold Vatican liable for clerical sex abuse

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica
Pope Francis holds the pastoral staff as he celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

A European court ruled Tuesday that the Vatican could not be sued in a local court for sexual abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests, affirming that the Holy See enjoys sovereign immunity and that it cannot be blamed for the misconduct of clerics and their superiors.

The European Court of Human Rights dismissed a case brought by two dozen people who said they were victims of abusive priests in Belgium. The plaintiffs had argued that the Holy See was liable because of the “structurally deficient” way the Catholic hierarchy had for decades covered up cases of priests who raped and molested children.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Strasbourg-based court after Belgian courts ruled they had no jurisdiction given the Holy See’s immunity as a sovereign state.


The European court said the Belgian judges were correct and that the victims hadn’t been deprived of their right to have access to a court. It restated the Belgian court ruling that the Holy See enjoys sovereign immunity and that no exception to that rule applied since the misconduct of bishops in handling abuse cases couldn’t be attributed to the Vatican.

Citing the Belgian decision, the European court said the pope wasn’t the “principal” of his bishops, “that the misconduct attributed directly to the Holy See hadn’t been committed on Belgian territory but in Rome, and that neither the pope nor the Holy See had been present on Belgian territory when the misconduct attributed to the leaders of the church in Belgium had been committed,” according to a summary of the ruling.

The European court said it wasn’t appropriate to substitute its own assessment since the Belgian decision hadn’t been arbitrary or unreasonable.

A landmark French report says there have been about 330,000 victims of child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in France over the last 70 years.

Tuesday’s ruling was the first time the Holy See’s immunity was tested in the European court. Both sides have three months to ask that the case be heard by the court’s Grand Chamber for a final decision.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Darian Pavli disputed the Belgian court’s finding about the level of authority that the pope exercises over his bishops. He argued that Belgian judges hadn’t considered evidence that the pope does in fact hire and fire bishops and that the Vatican as a policy had imposed a code of silence on the handling of abuse cases worldwide.

As a result, Pavli argued, the European tribunal should have found that Belgian judges did indeed deprive the victims of access to a court.

The Holy See has successfully argued in U.S. courts that the pope isn’t the boss of his bishops, blocking attempts by victims who have similarly tried to hold the Holy See and the pope liable for their abuse. More such lawsuits have been filed in recent years, including from victims of former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after a Vatican investigation found that he sexually abused minors and adults.

Pope Francis has expressed ‘shame’ on behalf of himself and the Roman Catholic Church for the scale of child sexual abuse within the church in France.

These lawsuits have cited a Vatican-commissioned report published last year that found a series of popes, Holy See officials and bishops downplayed or dismissed reports of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct as he rose through the church hierarchy.

The Vatican declined to comment on Tuesday’s ruling, saying it speaks for itself. The plaintiffs’ lawyers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online resource, said the ruling was a “galling reminder” of the Vatican’s impunity because of its status as a sovereign state.

“The church’s dual identity as a religion and a state allows it to shape-shift according to the threat it faces in courts,” she said in a statement. “No other religious institution enjoys the same buffet of legal protections. The result is that the church repeatedly evades justice and its untold millions of victims are left to suffer.”