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World News

Vatican's immunity upheld in landmark sexual abuse case

by Donna Birrell

The Vatican's immunity to prosecution by local courts has been affirmed after the European Court of Human Rights rejected a case brought by 24 victims of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Belgium.

The ECHR ruling found that the group could not demand prosecution against the Vatican and compensation because it is a sovereign state, which protects it from being sued in local courts over sexual abuse cases.

The victims, who claim they were abused as children, first began legal action in Belgium in 2011, complaining of "the structurally deficient way in which the Church had dealt with the known problem of sexual abuse within it."

The action was brought against the Holy See as well as an archbishop of the Catholic Church in Belgium and his two predecessors, several bishops and two associations of religious orders.

The group also claimed that the defendants should be liable to pay compensation of 10,000 euros to each of them because of the Catholic Church's 'policy of silence' on the issue of sexual abuse.

In October 2013 the Belgian court found it didn't have jurisdiction in respect of the Holy See.

In the first test of this ruling, yesterday the ECHR agreed with the Belgian court that the Holy See enjoyed diplomatic immunity and "state privileges under international law". 

The European Court's judgement is not final and any party to the case has three months to refer it to the Court's Grand Chamber.

Earlier this month, an independent inquiry found that around 3,000 Catholic priests in France had sexually abused an estimated 216,000 minors over the last 70 years. 

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