European Court of Human Rights dismisses a lawsuit from survivors of abuse by Catholic clergy; SNAP responds

On Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dismissed a lawsuit from survivors of abuse by Catholic clergy, ruling that the Vatican cannot be sued because it is a country. We can only agree with Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability, who said in response that the decision is "a galling reminder of the Vatican's impunity, made possible by its status as a sovereign state."

A group of 24 survivors from Belgium, Holland, and France, who had been abused by Catholic clergy as children, had appealed to the ECHR after Belgian courts ruled they had no jurisdiction given the See of Rome's immunity as a sovereign state. After battling since 2011, the survivors argued in the ECHR that they had been denied the right of access to a court under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that everyone is entitled to a fair trial.

We are saddened for survivors and disturbed by the ECHR's ruling and we believe that the victims deserve better from the secular courts.  The Vatican is far from an ordinary country. It is a walled enclave within the Italian city of Rome occupying just 110 acres. In 2015, its population was estimated to be 842. Yet this "state" is also the center of the largest religious organization in the world, and, as Anne Barrett Doyle correctly pointed out, "The notions endorsed by the ruling, that the Pope isn't the boss of his bishops and that the Holy See didn't authorize the bishops' cover-up of abuse, are demonstrably untrue."  

Sovereign immunity should not be applied to a religion masquerading as a country, we believe, especially when it is invoked to avoid responsibility for human rights violations that occurred outside of its tiny territory. The recent report from France tells us that the estimated number of victims in that country, with a Catholic population of 27 million, was 330,000.  Extrapolating from the information in the French investigation, Holland, which has a Catholic population of 4 million, likely has 50,000 survivors of abuse. Belgium, with 6 million Catholics, another 75,000 victims. These men and women deserve a chance for justice and healing because the policies set in the Roman See were the source of their suffering.

Moreover, because these three countries share borders and cultures, there is a very high likelihood that abusers were shuffled among them with impunity, infecting all with a diaspora of perpetrators - a sort of tragic clerical underground railroad designed to avoid detection, prosecution, and accountability. We believe that the ECHR missed the mark in their ruling, and hope that this brave group of survivors will appeal.

For this court to deny the Vatican's hand in all of this in its role as a religion was just downright silly. All roads in fact lead to Rome and all Catholic abusers worldwide were facilitated in their escape from justice by policies that originated there. This evil has crisscrossed the globe and walked right through every parish door. We know that nothing changes if nothing changes. SNAP stands with this group of survivors and remains prepared to support victims worldwide. 

CONTACT: Mike McDonnell, SNAP Communications Manager, (267-261-0578, [email protected]) Zach Hiner, SNAP Executive Director (517-974-9009, [email protected]), Melanie Sakoda, Survivor Support Coordinator (925-708-6175, [email protected]) Shaun Dougherty, SNAP Board President, (814-341-8386, [email protected])

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is


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