Court Rules Vatican Can't Be Held Liable for Sexual Abuse Accusations Against Priests

A European court on Tuesday ruled that the Vatican can't be sued in a local court on two dozen sexual abuse accusations, the Associated Press reported.

The European Court of Human Rights restated the ruling and that the Holy See's sovereign immunity holds no exceptions, and that the misconduct of bishops and alleged abuses could not be attributed to the Vatican. The court also said that the victims had not been deprived of the right to access a court.

The court dismissed the case from 24 people who said they were victims of abuse in Belgium. The victims said the Holy See was liable because of the "structurally deficient" way the church had covered up sexual abuses in the past, such as priests who raped and molested children.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online resource BishopAccountability.org, said she was disappointed in the court ruling and the "buffet of legal protections" the church has.

"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. "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."

Both sides have three months to request that the case be heard by the court's Grand Chamber for a final ruling.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Court refuses to Prosecute Vatican
A European court on Tuesday ruled that the Vatican can't be sued in a local court on two dozen sexual abuse accusations. Above, Pope Francis holds the pastoral staff as he celebrates a mass in St. Peter's Basilica for the opening of the bishops' synod, at the Vatican on October 10, 2021. Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

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.

Tuesday's ruling, the first time the Holy See's immunity was tested by the European court, was a Chamber judgment.

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 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 over 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 ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after a Vatican investigation found he sexually abused minors and adults.

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 his sexual misconduct as he rose through the church hierarchy.

The Vatican declined to comment on the ruling, saying it speaks for itself. The victims' lawyers didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.