Amid French Catholic Sex Abuse Revelation, Vatican Maintains Immunity

Oct 14, 2021 | Sexual Abuse

Shortly after revelations that 330,000 children were sexually abused within the Catholic Church in France since 1950, the European Court of Human Rights affirmed that the Vatican is beholden only to itself when it comes to justice. This means that the Vatican cannot be sued in European courts because it is a sovereign state.

In total, about 3,000 priests and other people involved in the church committed the acts of abuse. About 80% of the victims were boys. A report released in early October 2021 indicated that Catholic authorities new about the abuse and actively worked to cover it up in a “systematic manner.”

When such widespread abuse occurs at high-profile institutions like the Catholic Church – institutions that have cultivated an image of being a safe space for people of all ages – a lot of questions may arise. To help you understand the Catholic Church abuse scandal in France, we have provided answers to a few common questions.

How widespread is childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Europe?

In October 2021, a shocking report revealed that French Catholic clerics sexually abused about 216,000 children since 1950. The number rises to 330,000 when including lay people involved in the church.

“Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse,” said a summary of the report from the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE).

Most of the victims were boys, the report found.

Other reports have indicated thousands of cases of abuse in other countries in Europe, but as the CIASE points out, the church has often tried to cover up abuse and protect itself as an institution.

How is the legal system failing survivors of sexual abuse?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church cannot sue the Vatican. The ECHR’s decision marks the first to establish the Vatican’s immunity as a sovereign state, leading survivors in Europe few avenues to find justice.

In 2011 a group of survivors from Belgium, the Netherlands and France tried to sue the Catholic Church in Belgium, but that country’s legal system ruled it did not have jurisdiction. The survivors then filed a suit in the ECHR in 2017, which also decided that as a sovereign state the Vatican cannot be sued in that court.

The deep political ties of the Church in Europe have made illumination, reckoning, and justice difficult. However, there have been some developments that aim to hold abusers within the Catholic Church accountable.

For example, the French interior minister has stated that Catholic priests must report all child sexual abuse allegations to police, including those allegations that arise during confession. This decision comes after the top bishop in France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, claimed that the secrecy of confessional was “above the laws of the Republic.”

Can people sue churches in the United States for sex abuse crimes?

In the United States, U.S. victims have more recourse. For instance, New York temporarily suspended its statute of limitations for civil lawsuits to let survivors of childhood sex abuse file lawsuits against churches, as well as other institutions. Over 9,000 lawsuits flooded the system in that time.

However, different states have different rules about statutes of limitations.

What should I do if I or a loved one has been abused by someone within the Catholic Church?

If you or a loved one suffered sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, you need an advocate on your side who is sensitive to a survivors’ trauma and has extensive experience with these types of legal claims. Attorneys at PCVA have helped many survivors achieve justice and compensation from the organizations that failed to protect them, including survivors of Catholic Church abuse.

When you’re ready, our lawyers are here to listen and help. Talk to a lawyer for free by completing our intake form or calling us at (253) 777-0799 or (206) 462-4334. All conversations are confidential.

If you would like to learn more about resources available to survivors of sexual abuse, visit You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.