ROME (AP) — A European court agreed Tuesday the Vatican couldn't be sued in a local court for sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, affirming it enjoys sovereign immunity and the misconduct of priests and their superiors can't be attributed to the Holy See.
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 24 had argued the Holy See was liable because of the "structurally deficient" way the Catholic hierarchy had handled cases of priests who raped and molested children, covering up the crimes rather than reporting them.
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 the victims hadn't been deprived of their right to have access to a court. It restated the Belgian court ruling the Holy See enjoys sovereign immunity and 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 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. 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 the pope exercises over his bishops. He argued Belgian judges hadn't considered evidence 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 Belgian judges did indeed deprive the victims of access to a court.
Walter Van Steenbrugge, the Ghent, Belgium-based attorney who represented the 24 victims, said he was shocked the European court determined "the rights of those victims is less important than the state immunity of the church."
"If it was in 1521, in the medieval times, you'd say 'yes, we are in a different time period.' But now, after all those massive (reports) were coming out from victims of sex abuse?" he asked. "How can you sleep well at night when you make a verdict like that?"
The Vatican declined to comment on the ruling, saying it speaks for itself.