The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled Tuesday, Oct. 12, that the Vatican enjoys sovereign immunity, protecting it from child sexual abuse claims in local courts.

The ruling published Tuesday came after 24 people claiming to be victims of sexual abuse filed a lawsuit against the highest Catholic Holy See and the ECHR rejected the allegations.

The alleged victims had initially filed a class-action lawsuit in the Ghent Court of First Instance against the Holy See and several senior clergy officials in 2011, demanding $11,600 in compensation for each victim because of the church’s “policy of silence on the issue of sexual abuse.”

The lawsuit protested “the structurally deficient way in which the Church had dealt with the known problem of sexual abuse within it.”

But the Ghent court said it had no jurisdiction over the Holy See, which prompted the victims to take their case to Europe’s highest court.

To the surprise of many, this Tuesday, the ECHR sided with the defendant in a 6-1 ruling, concluding that it agrees with the Belgian court’s findings that the Holy See enjoys “diplomatic immunity” and “was internationally recognized as having the common attributes of a foreign sovereign, with the same rights and obligations as a state.”

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Darian Pavli, the only judge to vote in favor of the victims, said that the court had failed to consider “the nature of the injury in a manner independent of its location.”

Pavli also said the Belgian courts failed to respond to “the serious allegations of the applicants about the direct and significant involvement of the Holy See in the handling of sexual abuse by priests within the Belgian Church.”

The European court’s ruling is not final, and either party involved in the case can request that it be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court within three months.

Last week, the publication of a 2,500-page report revealed that as many as 330,000 children were sexually abused by clergy and lay members of France’s Catholic Church over the past seven decades. In addition, between 2,900 and 3,200 priests and clergy were accused of assault during this time.

The research that led to the report was carried out by the French Independent Commission against Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE).

CIASE drew on the church, court, press, and police archives, as well as interviews with witnesses. 

Although the statute of limitations has expired for most offenses, a few dozen are within the 40-year limit.  

The Commission concludes that “the Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment with the highest prevalence of sexual violence.”

Among its recommendations to prevent abuse, it emphasizes improving the training of priests and other clergy, revising the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the church, and creating policies that recognize and offer compensation to victims.

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