The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Thursday rejected complaints made by sexual abuse victims to sue the Vatican over the Church’s handling of the abuse scandals.
The case was brought before the court in Strasbourg by 24 Belgian, French and Dutch nationals, who alleged that they were sexually abused by Catholic priests when they were children.
Previously, a judge in the Ghent Court of First Instance had ruled that the Church was “legally untouchable,” meaning it could not be sued.
Following the ruling of the Belgian court, the alleged victims lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights on 2 February 2017.
In this instance, they raised the question of the Roman Catholic Church government’s immunity from the jurisdiction of domestic courts by citing the right of access to a court, alleging that by applying this principle, the court prevented the group from pursuing their civil claims, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, the ECHR has backed the judgement made by the Belgian court, rejecting claims made by the applicants.
“In today’s Chamber judgment, the Court held, by a majority (six votes to one), that there had been no violation of Article 6 § 1 (right of access to a court) of the European Convention on Human Rights,” an ECHR statement read, referring to the previous trial.
In their original class action, filed in 2011, the complainants demanded €10,000 in compensation from the Holy See – the government of the Roman Catholic Church – as well as several leaders of the Belgian Catholic Church and various Catholic associations regarding the harm caused by the Church’s policy of silence on the issue of sexual abuse.
The case itself started a decade ago, when several testimonies emerged of sexual abuse within the Church’s ranks, resulting in the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, admitting to sexual abuse and resigning.
As this was a Chamber judgement, both sides are now given three months to request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR for a final ruling. When a case is referred to this chamber, it does not include any judges who were involved when the case was first examined.